A Tip Sheet for Smart, Effective Office Design

Your workplace offers a critical first impression to potential business clients. Follow these savvy pointers to make your space communicate exactly the message you want.
Latest posts by Lynne Meredith Schreiber (see all)

Dr. Laura Castleman’s first office didn’t look like a typical doctor’s office. She furnished the waiting room with blue-and-cream couches, oversized chairs and, instead of buzzing, overhead fluorescent lighting, she took a softer approach and lit the room with lots of lamps.

“I wanted people to feel comfortable,” the OB/GYN says of that homey, atypical medical office.

When Castleman opened her Troy, Mich., practice in 1999 she had an advantage. She shared office space with her father, Dr. Lawrence Castleman, an ophthalmologist and cosmetic surgeon. And the Castlemans consulted a residential interior designer to guide them in achieving the cozy style they both wanted.

Even if you can’t afford a decorator…

Startups typically don’t have the funds to bring in a specialist. Still, it’s important to choose your furniture, colors and accoutrements carefully because, like it or not, your space says something about you.

Consider these tips for designing a great office that sends a message of success.

  • Keep it comfortable, advises Eric Cohler, a New York designer who has completed more than 350 projects, from studio apartments to hotel renovations. “If you’re comfortable, your potential client will be comfortable,” he says.
  • Understand the power balance. In your office, you automatically have the upper-hand, Cohler says. Be careful not to intimidate – including how you light the space. Arrange seating so glare from a window or a desk lamp doesn’t shine in a client’s eyes. Consider sitting with clients at a round table where there’s no “head seat.” That sends the message that if you decide to work together, you’ll be on equal footing.
  • Think modularly, suggests Charles Dunlap, a designer in Royal Oak, Mich. When he set up Dunlap Design Group in the space above his garage, he put in a custom U-shaped desk. But as his company grew and he moved into bigger digs, the desk wouldn’t fit. “Growing companies need pieces that can move with you,” he says.
  • Flow follows function. Castleman tied the design of her office into how she’d use it. One example: She laid out a clear path from clean instruments to where they’d be disposed of once used.
  • Stick to your budget. Because Castleman ushered patients into her personal office to discuss their medical history, it had to be as inviting as the waiting room. The designer suggested carpet “that was off the deep end in price” instead of the more affordable flooring in the waiting room. Castleman opted out.
  • Convey your style and accomplishments. Cohler suggests using texture such as grasscloth wallpaper or interesting ceiling tiles to offset a neutral palette. Hang your diplomas and academic honors if they’re relevant to what you do. If you’re an entertainer or party planner, add whimsy with an antique couch, vintage lamp or funky throw pillows.
  • Don’t overdo it with personal items. “No one wants to see Aunt Millie,” Cohler says. “A couple of family photos, kids and wife or husband, that’s enough.”
  • Consider including vintage and high-end pieces. It’s OK to mix it up – pair a glass tabletop with chrome sawhorses for legs, or a Louis XVI chair with an Ikea desk.
  • Have fun. Choose a green leather desk chair or paint a stripe of your favorite bright color around the border of the ceiling as an accent.
  • Make your space accessible, including Wi-Fi and other tech conveniences that allow potential clients to power-up their laptops.
  • Pay attention to details, even down to the door you choose. Cohler uses milk glass in his office door to obscure the view but convey a sense of community. “It says I’m part of the outside office, still feel engaged with what’s going on outside my own sphere, but the door being closed says, ‘What’s going on here is private,’” he explains.

Bonus tip: Some online resources for office design include Design Within Reach, Techline and Flor.com.

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