Office Decor: How Nice is Too Nice?

Green and White Pretty Chic Office, originally uploaded to Flickr by camille iman.Reader L wonders “how nice is too nice” for an office…

I will be moving into an corporate environment soon after being a teacher for several years. I have a fabulous office and would like to really make it a place I enjoy being, however I have noticed that the other women in the office (including my boss) don’t personalize their spaces much. Would it be a faux pas to put more effort into my office than they do? Help!

I’ve worked with some people — both women as well as men — who hired a decorator to come in and “do” their office, and I’ve worked with people who seemed totally content to work amidst a flurry of papers, brown file boxes, and the occasional book strewn about. So for my $.02, it is totally personality-based and you should decorate your office how you want. That said, however, there are a few limits that you should consider… (Pictured.)

- Focus first on what will make the space a productive space for you. For some people (myself included) that means it should be a “happy” space — I’ve never had an office that didn’t include pictures of my loved ones and (viewable on my side of the desk) a small piece of artwork or two. At some places it was just a colorful postcard I liked hung behind my monitor — at other places I had framed artwork on the wall my desk faced.  Some of my friends have even gone so far as to bring colorful rugs to the office, on the theory that it brightens up the space and makes it more enjoyable for them to be there.  I think all of these are well within your bounds.


- If your job involves outsiders visiting your office — clients, customers, whatever — then think about their comfort when purchasing items for your office as well.  For example, if having a more comfortable visitor’s chair also involves buying a chair that’s more pleasant for you to look at, it’s a win-win.  I’ve heard of people who keep antique tea sets in their office for this purpose also; even purchasing a nice card holder can be a mini-way to personalize your office in a way that makes it more appealing to visitors.

- Avoid purchasing anything too “young.”  For example, I once worked with a man who had a giant, sports-themed beanbag chair in the corner of his office — and that pretty much said all it needed to say about his personality and workstyle.  For women, similarly, there are right ways to do pink office accessories and wrong ways (such as, ahem, the above), and I think most of the “wrong ways” start with “purchasing desk accessories meant for a teenage girl.”

– Finally, consider ways that your office decor might encroach on your coworkers’ space.  For example:

  • Nothing smelly. Commenters continually mention how much they hate to smell perfume on people, and I think the same would go for any office fragrance. When I first started work I bought a “room spray” that I thought would be great for work — a lemony, slightly spicy scent from Anne Fontaine — and I would spray it occasionally, late at night, before leaving my office. A few times people commented something along the lines of “oh, your office smells nice” — which probably is enough to tell me that it was too much scent. Similarly, don’t do any decor that is going to smell for a few days (such as paint).
  • Reconsider window dressings or other treatments that “darken” the space considerably.  (In fact — when we’ve talked about office decor in the past, readers questioned my inclusion of window dressing as one way to liven up your office walls. Like I said above, I’ve seen people who went all out with the decorator, but perhaps it’s best to say you should leave any serious decoration until you’re a partner or owner of the the business.)

Readers, what do you think is “too nice” for office decor? What are some ways you’ve seen office decor fail entirely?


  1. a co worker of mine has her cork board area around her desks (she sits with basically 3 desks around her) lined with pictures of handsome male actors, like matt damon and james franco and a few others. She’s older than I am, approximatly 30 and one of my supervisors. It reminds me of when I decorated my locker in Jr. High with pictures of leonardo dicaprio…something about it screams unprofessional….but am I just being oversensitive? for the record, i am NOT the decoratign type at all – my office is all standard office issue with the exception of one picture of my family and one of me with the boyfriend.

  2. Definitely get a read stapler. A Swingline. Those Bostons jam up.

  3. Our firm need’s new furniture. Our’s comes from the 1950s Mad Men series, but ours has old gum under the seats also. FOOEY!

  4. “I’ve worked with some people — both women as well as men — who hired a decorator to come in and “do” their office …”

    Partners and executives, maybe, not new hires.

    If other people’s offices are somewhat impersonal, I would keep mine fairly impersonal, too, at least for the first six months to a year, assuming I cared what other people thought, which the writer apparently does.

  5. When I started my last job, there was no room for salary negotiations but the office space was a disaster. Since I couldn’t negotiate within salary, time off, or the like (it was gov’t funded and thus pre-set), the one place I negotiated was my office. Negotiated in new furniture, flooring, wall color. I chose, they paid, and I made sure to choose what wasn’t too dorm room or underage (especially since I appear much younger than I am). I chose art with personal meaning for me that wouldn’t be clearly personal (could just be art I liked, no one knew they were works done by professionals who are loved ones, etc.) and photos of my pup around here and there.

    I think the line crossing comes in where it feels like you’ve entered someone’s bedroom or middle school locker when you walk in.

  6. My office is decorated with my kids’ art. My girls love to make me things and insist they go to work with me. Frankly it’s fun to look at them while I’m on a long conference call. Otherwise, I have my diplomas, a few photos pf family, a few pictures of my university and a tasteful wall calendar.

    Not too homey and not too stark, I hope.

    • I also try to walk the line between homey and stark: diplomas, one piece of pretty, colorful art with personal meaning, and a photo of each of my kids. But I don’t do much in the way of my kids’ art: actually, there’s just one single piece of it, and it’s not easily visible from the doorway. When my kids urge me to bring in their artwork, I say yes, but it winds up in a file in my desk drawer. On the rare occasions they visit, they have no memory of what they gave me.

      I’ve noticed that a couple of the dads in my office are much bigger on displaying their children’s art than are the moms. Is this a trend in other offices? Maybe we moms are more concerned about being perceived as less focused on career, while dads are free to “humanize” themselves with displays of paternal pride? I don’t make negative inferences about women if they put up kids’ drawings, etc., but I worry others might.

      • re: the kids’ art

        I have a bunch up. I probably wouldn’t if I had a flex schedule or worked part time. Since I am often the first one in/last one out, no one is questioning my work ethic. Not saying this is right.

      • a passion for fashion :

        I have a biglaw “flex” schedule (i still billed 2100 hours last year), but I have many photos of my kiddos up, as well as some of their artwork. But I do agree that there are a lot of met who seem to go overboard with the artwork. Though my personal feeling is that its less about women not wanting to be seen as less focused and more about men wanting to prove that they are still a part of their kids lives.

      • I do not have kids nor plan to. But seeing their projects on coworkers’ walls always brings me a little joy. It’s sort of like a little burst of playfulness in the starkness. I’ve always seen it as parental pride, not like someone is longing to be home.

        If it were nothing but kids art and pictures everywhere that would be different. But I don’t see anything less professional about displaying a piece or two. I think it’s healthy to show you have balance in your life outside of work, whether it’s travel, relationships with family, framed articles you’ve written, or what not.

        • re: kids’ art

          I have watercolors and marker drawings from my son that I frame in Ikea 16×20 frames. I do this because I feel like it creates a nice compromise for my professional and personal/mom life. Having his artwork in mats and glass frames looks intentional and much nicer than if I just tacked or taped up some paper. I limit myself to three on display as I realize having a whole gallery wall would be ridiculous.

  7. At my job (a state appellate clerkship) neither of my co-clerks have so much as a picture in their office. Nothing on the walls, not even their diplomas or law licenses. For me, bare walls are very “psych ward” so I asked about it and they said that most of the other clerks in other chambers hang things up and make it more home-y. So I hung up my diplomas, one artistic photograph, and a calendar, and sat two framed pictures on my desk. I didn’t want to go TOO overboard since theirs are so stark, but I just couldn’t sit here for two years staring at bare grey walls. yikes.

    • I work for a state agency – and had a boss that was pressuring me to literally “decorate” – with no budget. And our tastes are widely divergent. Plants hit a middle ground. (Peace Lily, which is now 3 peace lilies) and kept going with a task lamp.

      I did improve the space a bit more once she departed. Totally felt boxed in before then.

      Now I am so crazy busy in my state job, that not decorating may be a saving grace. If I was stark from the get-go and had no real time for getting personal stuff into the office, I’d be OK with that, though I may pray for a conference room if I had to meet with someone. :)

  8. My office is a bit cluttered but definitely colorful.

    I am fortunate enough to have found that one rare orchid plant that keeps blooming. So a messy office + an orchid in bloom = happy mamabear.

    • I have an ivy that has survived 4 years of office moves across three states.

      • What kind of ivy was it? I’ve got a cubicle with NO natural light at all, and I’m desperate for a little green in my space, but really don’t want to kill yet another house plant. (I’ve got a great garden with herbs and flowers but a basement apartment with no natural light -it’s not me, it’s the lack of sunlight, I swear!)

  9. Diana Barry :

    LOL, I still haven’t put anything up and it’s been almost 4 years. I do have my diplomas up, but nothing else. Sigh…

  10. Research, Not Law :

    As reference, my decorating consists of a calendar and a handful of push-pinned photos/art from my kids.

    I think Kat and others hit it on the nail. Decorate to however you feel comfortable, providing that it isn’t juvenile (lol’ing about the teeny bopper collage), offensive, or negatively impacting others. Just because I don’t make a similar effort doesn’t mean that I think it’s in appropriate; I’d feel sad if someone interpreted my spirit-less office that way. I’ve always appreciated the efforts made by others to bring in carpets, art, lamps, collections, memorabilia, seasonal decore, etc.

  11. I’d love to figure out a better way to decorate cubicle walls. In the past, I’ve used cute push pins to display photos near my desk but I started worrying that my office looked too much like a dorm room bulletin board, so I took them down. Ideas?

    • Research, Not Law :

      I’ve seen decorative paper stapled up like wallpaper, art prints, sports pennants, and vinyl record covers. Simply blocking the view with plants, lamps, and framed photos seems the most common.

  12. I feel weird putting up diplomas. I did decorate, but its low key. Three small Japanese prints, a clock, wooden storage cabinet, visitor’s chair (all belong to the company), then a small lamp, and a small wooden elephant (mine). Homey, but clean. No stuffed animals or college memo. I have one electronic photo frame that really only I can see (who’s going to be interested in my hubby and dogs?), a small stack of books and a small box of toiletries. I’d like to make it out the door in one trip, if necessary!
    I think there’s a happy medium between “I’m outta here” and “I’m movin’ in!”

  13. I agree that if you don’t have anything on your walls, it makes me think you’re not committed to the firm.
    I’ve always decorated my office with professional, but personal items. As a new associate, it was diplomas, friend photos (in a tasteful flip-frame), and matching desk-sets. As a newly married, older associate, it was wedding photos, a little art, and some nick-nacks and awards. Now, as a young partner, I have a larger office that I painted, put my own furniture in, curtains, photos and kid-made-art, etc. I LOVE it and everyone who walks by my office (clients included) peek in and usually compliment it. It makes me happy and it doesn’t bother me in the least that it’s the “showy-est” office in the office. I know my male partners (all male) spent way more than I in decorating their offices, but I think mine is professional, yet feminine and, if I do say so myself, gorgeous.

    The bottom line: It increases my happiness at work. So if it does the same for you, go for it.

    Note, even ‘strange’ likes can be done nicely. I have a partner who loves dorky video games and comics. He has very large, vintage alien movie posters (like 4 foot x 8 foot) framed in his office and it looks fine. It certainly isn’t me and I think liking it is juvenile, but it FITS him. And I’m sure it makes him happy. And no one who knows him is going to be fooled that he isn’t dorky, so it’s not going to scare away clients. It’s going to fascinate the clients he already established a rapport with.

    • I just started quilting last year. I started work on a poster-sized wall-hanging. My goal is to get it finished and hang it on the wall I face when I sit at my desk. So that when I’m working long hours, I can stare at it and remind myself to go home.

      I have 3 plants and large dark conservative wood furniture. I have diplomas on the wall, two photos, and a painting. Calender of my nephew. 2 framed photos of my family. The art is all office-appropriate.

    • unique but nice & slow changes :

      Agreed. One law partner I know specializes in sports law. His office has multiple framed jerseys, signed footballs, etc. Another one has cowboy hats on display to match his Western-style office supplies (think turquoise and silver fountain pen), and even a mute-colored serape on the chair. Both offices look very elegant and professional, and fit them.

      If you are new, start with plants. Plants never offend anyone, and they immediately warm up the place. Then slowly add things over time, a picture frame next month, a small vase or desk sculpture a few weeks later, etc. That way you can measure people’s reactions, and they probably won’t pay as much attention as if it was fully decorated overnight.
      A note on paint, curtains, nails and other fixtures – check your office policy before you do anything. For example, we can’t even hang a frame (have to get the building to do it), and paint is not allowed.

  14. phillygirlruns :

    the recent posts and comment threads on office decor have made me decide it’s finally (after almost 5 years) time to get some decorating done. also, i’m going to take over the (bigger) empty office next to mine and leave the majority of my files in my current (smaller, only-one-window) office. i have three full metal cabinets, a five-shelf wooden shelf, and about 20 redwelds on the floor (8 of them are for active files, the others need to be closed or at least sent to storage)…and nothing on my walls. re-donk-u-lous.

  15. Less is more when it comes to decorating. I would also stay away from Cute, Edgy, and Overly-personal.

  16. My co-worker is obsessed with Marilyn Monroe. Every surface is covered with framed photos, calendars, shopping totes, mugs, pillows, etc., all emblazoned with MM’s face. It’s… odd, to say the least.

  17. MeliaraofTlanth :

    I have absolutely nothing on my wall except the corkboard that existed when I moved in. I haven’t gotten around to it. In a perfect world, I want to get a) a bonsai tree, because they’re just so happy looking b) my diplomas (this would, of course, require getting my diplomas framed, which I’ve been meaning to do since I graduated college and law school, oh, 5 and 2 years ago respectively) and c) one nice framed print of a picture I took while traveling (haven’t decided on what). And I suppose I should bring in a picture of my family or significant other. I’m a fan of “less is more.” For example, I question the secretary that has her entire cubicle covered in Michael Jackson pictures. It freaks me out just a bit.

  18. Please, for the love of allergies, don’t get scented aerosoles/sprays/candles. Yes, I know, it’s your personal space and la di da but really, I try. I take pain killers and nasal sprays and sneak in pseudoephedrine here and there and am beginning allergy shots soon but my coworker just walked into my cubicle and KILLED me with his subtle and tasteful cologne/perfume/aftershave/scented oil business. Thank you for the sniffles and headache/migraine that I’m scared to get diagnosed.

    I honestly thought I’d develop a tolerance to scents if I started wearing them but that hasn’t happened. It made it worse. I noticed the change in soap in the ladies room and I’m considering writing to building maintenance to change it back to the non-scented bubblies that was doing the job just fine before.

  19. I would hang up diplomas only for now, and bring in some spare or cheap furniture if they aren’t going to order it (Tables or shelves). Add some pictures of what you love around your desk and if you have some light, a plant.

    What I did when I moved in my office was add one office improvement per month. None of the others decorate theirs but the staff decorates their cubes. I started with a desk and some shelves and a chair. So January, coat rack. February, I hung my diplomas. March, I brough in pictures. April, I got some other awards framed for the wall that only I can see from my desk. May, small end table with a plant. June, bigger table and two chairs. etc. Eventually, the others ended up decorating too but that way I didn’t feel any looming “new girl is really moving in huh?” comments. Now I am looking at some prints or art to add.

    Bottomline is do not avoid personalizing the office because others do not. You can add some personalization without looking like you have more money or more time. Just do it gradually and classy. If they will order you something, definintely take advantage but don’t over do it.

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