How to Decorate Your Desk

How to Decorate Your Desk | CorporetteHow do YOU like to decorate your desk?  Where is the line between “plain vanilla robot” and “crazed Cathy fan”?

You covered desk essentials recently, but what I’ve really been wondering is: How do you “decorate” a desk? Where do you draw the line between professional and tacky?

I’m a young (25) legal professional working in a very casual environment where most of the other people in the building are not lawyers. Most of these other people are women who are fairly close to retirement age, so their desks are…. well, tacky. Think small animals holding signs with “witty sayings” and billions of pictures of grandchildren. At the moment, I only have some nice letter holders and a pretty inbox on my desk. I’d like my desk to look professional, but I have no idea what a professional desk has on it!

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We’ve talked about how to personalize an office before, as well as liven up your office walls, as well as how to choose your own office furniture, but not in a while, so I’m curious.  For my $.02, my desk/office space (even in BigLaw) has always included these things:

  • personal photos facing me (not my visitors)
  • Wacky paperclip holder/tape dispenser (such as the Koziol Designs Elvis the Tape Dispenser, pictured above, available at Amazon for $25)
  • Personal mug as pencil holder (which for me, weirdly, has always been what would be my next job — while in BigLaw I had a mug from the 25th anniversary of the nonprofit I eventually worked for; at the non-profit I kept a Corporette mug on my desk).
  • A small monthly calendar (I always had artsy/travel mini-calendars when I was in BigLaw; since having a kiddo I’ve had VistaPrint desk calendars)
  • A stress ball (right now I have one that says “Just Say Fooey and Move On” on it from VistaPrint) (just tried to take a picture but my computer is being wacky and won’t upload the photos)
  • Fake keys on my keyboard, including one that says “Panic
  • Post-It notes taped to my monitor.  I’ve had a growing collection of fortune cookie fortunes for a long time now (there are currently five — the first very faded one says “Say hello to others. You will have a happier day.”). When I was working as a lawyer I kept a PostIt of relevant BlueBook notes for whatever regional reporters I was citing most often; now I have the computer codes for the different Corporette colors, as well as other notes and things to remember.

Now: does any of this make me a stylish professional?  Not necessarily, no.  I suppose at best an outsider might think I’m a wacky dork; at worst a frazzled mom.  Ultimately: it makes me happy, it keeps me productive, and ultimately very few people sit directly in front of my monitor and get the full effect, so I will probably always have this kind of stuff.

I’m curious, readers — what are the little things you have to personalize your office?  Can you describe examples of colleagues’ offices that you thought gave you a strong negative or positive impression?

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  1. I always thought it was most professional to not decorate your desk (plus I’m lazy so added bonus of not having to think about it), but after a few people mentioned this gave off the impression that you were not planning on staying with the firm long I amended my stance. Mostly just if I got something during the day I kept it on my desk instead of take it home.

    • I used to follow a strict “No decorating” policy, but I got some feedback once (twice?!) that I come off as “cold”. I added a funky calendar, bottle of nice hand cream, a cool pencil hold and a pic of my partner and I. I like it now, and I think it adds a little “me” to an otherwise beige desk.

  2. I only have a few items at this location. (I may have posted about this before – but I am not always in the same office building, as our company has more than 1 location in this region.)

    So, definitely no personal photos (I would feel weird about some stranger staring at photos of my loved ones.)

    On the plus side, one of the other people who use this space left it cleaner than I left it. (There had been a few dustbunnies behind the computer monitor and they got cleared away.) So yay for my having tidier-than-me coworkers. :-)

  3. Are these “Just Say Fooey and Move On” stress balls available for purchase? That would be awesome!

  4. Mandatory for a professional desk:

    1. Nicely framed photo of your cat facing you
    2. Many framed photos of yourself everywhere
    3. XJS 5000 Dictaphone

  5. Diana Barry :

    I just have files on my desk, office supplies, and random makeup (lip balm) scattered around my monitor. I don’t have a very big desk so not a lot of room for stuff.

  6. Just don’t leave food out. Because that’s how you get ants.

  7. My desk has a plant on it (it’s my assistant’s but I am its foster desk), a business card holder, and a drink coaster. Everything else is paper or business related supply like a stapler. I have a private office so I can reserve my desk for work and put decorative touches elsewhere.

    • Myrna gave me a decorative PLANT for my desk, but then I got so much work that I could NOT keep it any more on my desk, so I gave it to Frank. He did NOT take care of it, and he put his COLD coffee in it at the end of the day instead of WATERRING it with WATER. The Plant died, but he still dump’s what is left of his coffee in the dirt. It is smelley and moldy and I told him he should get rid of it but give me the pot back so I can put something new in it and bring it home so MYRNA can see it again. I wish I had more room here, but it is cramped and I am doieng all the work so it is messey.

      The manageing partner promised me a desk with a window and space to close my door when we move. He is leaneing toward’s a place on 3rd Avenue, but said he may ask me (and other’s) to UP our billieng’s to 3800 – 4000 hours per year. That will mean that I will probabley have to spend an extra 1/2 hour each day at my desk or at home. FOOEY!

  8. I don’t keep many person things on my desk but I do have a ring holder. I like to wear rings and take them off throughout the day. It’s a bad habit.

    My ring holder:

    Once upon a time, everyone received an electronic picture frame for our offices. Everyone else loaded it up with kid photos. I loaded mine up with cat photos–it took me a few weeks of stalking my cats and catching them by surprise with my camera to get enough for a good rotation. My cats now hide when I pull out the camera.

    • Purple Shamrock :

      Sorry! Accidentally hit report instead of reply.

      What I meant to say…Love the idea of putting cat pics on the electronic picture frame! I would do the same thing. My cell phone is now my virtual wallet with tons of pics of my cats. Only one of mine hates getting her picture taken. The other two are used to it.

    • That’s amazing! Our cat is going to end up in that pet shaming blog. Woke up this am to destroyed and empty treat package.

  9. I’ve got a couple fun desk accessories from A set of three little handmade boxes of different sizes (think like the kind of boxes that jewelry gifts come in) that my husband bought me at some art fair. I keep paper clips, etc in them.

    • Wildkitten :

      +1 I “decorate” with functional desk organization.

    • +1. I’m also a functional decorator. I have a small galvanized metal bucket for my pens/scissors, a nice coaster and two ceramic kitchen pinch bowls from Anthropologie that hold my clips and paper clips (in two different but coordinating colors).

  10. Gail the Goldfish :

    mine has piles of paper as a study in organized chaos. And a water bottle.

    • Cornellian :

      Ditto. Plus my graphing calculator, a mug with a hyperboleandahalf picture, and hand cream.

      • I have the “A’m a spaghatta nadle!” button hanging in my cubicle =)

      • Back Home :

        I’m glad I’m not the only one with a graphing calculator at work. My co-workers always make fun of me when they see it.

        • I keep meaning to bring mine in but I’m paranoid that my coworkers would be too jealous.

    • But is leaving a water bottle on your desk professional?

      • Only if the bottle is from a professional brand of water, natch.

      • Gail the Goldfish :

        Mine’s hot pink, so I’m sure someone thinks it’s not.

        (I actually hate pink, but someone gave it to me and all my other water bottles were freebie firm giveaways during OCI in law school, so probably not the best thing to have since none of them are my firm).

        • Mine’s pink & green Minnie Mouse. I am 100% sure it’s unprofessional but I don’t care. It makes me smile. And I don’t take it to meetings with me.

        • This would totally out me if my coworkers see it, but mine is a video game joke… It says Aperture Science on it. Plain white with black lettering, though, so if you haven’t played the game, you’ll just wonder why I have a bottle that has zero to do with my industry. It’s a great conversation starter with kindred spirits, though!

  11. How does this apply to a cubicle though? I have been told that offices and cubicles are two completely different stories when it comes to “decorating/personalizing”. While it is acceptable to personalize your office, cubicles should not have anything of a personal nature in them such a photographs and non-company issued pencil holders/office supplies because they’re considered a shared space with your other cubicle buddies.

    • Definitely not the case at my company. People go to town decorating their cubes.

    • I think the only real difference in cubicle decorating is you should have nothing that distracts co-workers (I’m talking to you, chirping bird clock lady three rows down…)

    • Purple Shamrock :

      My cube is my own personal space and not shared with anyone. There are “walls” that separate each person’s space.

      I have a few personal framed pictures, some thank you and birthday cards given to me by co-workers, a small calendar, box of tissues, lotion, office supplies.

    • Cubicles aren’t shared spaces if you have your own assigned cubicle.

    • That sounds way, way too uptight. There isn’t that much difference between an office and a cube – some people use the office as a personal cell, but really you get as much visits there as anywhere, and decorating is a matter of visitors at least as much as you.

    • If your desk is a permanent assignment that you don’t share with anyone else (that is always your seat and only your seat) you can personalize within reason. The odd picture or fun desk accessory. I agree with some of the earlier comments that even when you are in a cube, if you don’t take any steps to make the space “yours” that people will get judgy about whether you are putting down roots at the company or are a little too cold. I have personally received those comments. I personally like a picture or two and some art cards as a starting point. I also have a TARDIS bank on my desk along with all of my desk organizers.

      If in doubt, start with a couple of small touches that make the space more comfortable for you and gauge any reactions from there.

  12. I don’t have a ton of personal stuff on my desk itself because it is mostly so jammed with work, but I do have some snapshots of my kid taped to the inside panel of my computer hutch (so really only viewable to someone sitting in my chair facing my monitor) and then some nicely framed family photos on my desk and bookshelf.

    The biggest personal touch in my office, however, is my door, which is covered in my son’s daycare art projects (only the especially cute ones). I know for a lot of people, this would verge on overly familiar, but I work in family law in a very small firm in a very small town, and I think it helps develop a rapport with my clients for them to see me as someone with a family of my own. I get tons and tons of compliments on them, and they are a good conversation-starter with new clients.

  13. Baconpancakes :

    One of my coworkers’ desks manages to hold a bluetooth headset stand, a bobblehead doll, a 2.5 ft Cleveland Indians vertical pennant, a rubber band ball, an ironic mug, a stack of sports magazines, a cigarbox, mini models of various DC landmarks, multiple empty water bottles, a business card holder, a pro bono service award that has nothing to do with the career he’s in now, and a prodigious amount of paper trash. This is in addition to the three monitors and necessary file folders and normal office supplies. Consequently, one can’t see any of his actual desk.

    I take his desk as an example of what not to do.

    • I see a spinoff series: Office Hoarders!

    • 1948 world series? (Indians Burn)

    • This is the cubicle decor equivalent of Comic Sans font.

    • When I was still in law school, I interned at this one government agency where one of my supervising attorneys had an office that was basically a shrine to the Simpsons. He had every figurine lined up all over his desk and shelves, lots of random mugs, pencils, calendars, stickers, etc. Every place you looked, there was a little yellow cartoon figure. The best/worst part was that he didn’t like overhead lights (which I can understand) so he kept his lights off and just used two desk lamps and several yards of christmas lights strung up all along the shelves and around his desk. It was awesome and really creepy all at the same time.

  14. Where’s SunnyD? Cuz she got me this awesome b8tt station that is currently adorned with a huge orange flowery pen. Add in Dilbert comics, a toy train, toy airplane, piggy bank, tiny Eiffel tower and tiny pyramid, I have a fun arrangement of stuff keeping my paper piles company.

    • I thought of you immediately, Ru, when I saw this post. So glad you’re still loving that shockingly tacky thing. Mr. Potato Head would not have liked competing for attention with the b*tt station.

    • Killer Kitten Heels :

      I’m totally getting this for my husband to keep on his desk at work. (Sadly, wouldn’t fly in mine.)

    • OMG! I want one! I’m also tempted to get one for whoever I have to gift to in this year’s Secret Santa (ugh) but know that most of my coworkers would not react well at all.

  15. I have lotion, business card holder, and a shot glass someone got me from Vegas that holds paper clips.

  16. My desk has a few personal touches. A digital photo frame that I usually forget to turn on that’s full of family & travel photos. A vase of dried roses my dh gave me for our anniversary last year – only the 2nd or 3rd time he sent me flowers, so I want to keep them somewhere our cat won’t destroy. On the table behind my desk I have 2 framed family photos and a mini Mickey Mouse hat. I have a few personal magnets on my white board, and a picture dh’s grandmother painted on the wall. I think my desk is pretty sparse, actually, except for the piles of paper all over it.

  17. I have seen all of the extremes among my co-workers. The completely bare office to the ridiculously overly decorated office. I like to think my office is a very happy in-between. I have several nicely framed photos of my son/family, my work-anniversary clock, an award for completion of a work-related project, a lamp I got in Vietnam, attractive pen/highlighter holders, a bookcase full of work-related textbooks, and a crystal candy dish. I find that attractive folders and notebooks help keep me organized so my floral folders add to the overall office warmth.

    I think adding a plant and a nice lamp make an office seem inviting and not overly personalized. The owner of my company has a fantastic office with just the right combo of work-related things, things from his world travels, and touches of family. It really striked the right tone in my book!

  18. I have a ton of random stuff on my desk, most of which I should probably get rid off but my non-negotiables are:
    – a nice wall calendar (I write most things in my desk calendar and the iphone but I still like to have one)
    – a nice desk lamp to counteract the horrible fluorescent lighting
    – a pretty mug for my tea, and
    – a red stapler just because it makes me happy

    I also got one of those “persian rug” mousepads but I never use a mousepad with my mouse so now it’s more of an oversize coaster. Someone gave me a little bamboo plant and so that also sits on my desk now. The rest of my plants are not on my desk but behind me but it is nice to have a bit of green in my direct line of sight.

  19. Decoration? Hmm…I have: two photos of my kid, my PhD diploma hanging on the wall, coffee mugs, three monitors, two computers, one phone and lots of paper. And a desk organizer for pens, paper clips. etc. I work from home, though, so I can define my own “professional” decor.

    • Aha! I was about to say “I had never thought of bringing my PhD to work” when I read that you work from home :) I have mine framed in my home office, too, and I’ve never seen anyone (outside of professors) bring theirs in to put up at work. Too bad, though, bc it takes a long long time to get it.

      • Man, if I had a PhD I’d put it on the wall for everyone to see. Those things are dang hard to get.

      • AttiredAttorney :

        Interesting! Everyone in my government office has their undergrad and graduate diplomas framed and hung in their offices.

  20. My desk has a couple of pictures of my kids (an individual one of each of them and then a hinged frame with two photos of the three together including one on vacation), a lamp, a water bottle, a stapler and a hole puncher, and a folder organizer thing. I also have other stuff (like a plant and a lady of justice statue, art done by my kids, etc, on the book shelf in my office.) But that is what is on my desk.

  21. The only office I have ever judged poorly was a first year associate who put up ridiculous my-little-pony-like wall decals. I think it was a joke, but I still thought it was really unprofessional.

    I secretly judge people with really messy offices, but not as poor judgment, just poor organizational skills.

    Other than hanging artwork, framed photos and some mugs for office supplies, I have a few decorative paperweights and a hilariously old fashioned name plate that an employer once made me (like you might see sitting on a desk at a neighborhood bank in the 80s). It is my maiden name and everyone asks about it, since it looks so retro.

  22. My actual desk is taken up with two computers and three monitors. But there is a small table in my office that houses one of those folding art cubes that I got as a gift. Every visitor to my office plays and fidgets with the art cube. I highly recommend one.

  23. So now for a total T/J (we seem to be especially on point in this thread and the giveaway one):
    I don’t want to change my haircolor but I want my hair to be shinier, kind of like it gets when you do dye it. I’ve had a gloss done at a salon before and was so-so on the results, but am considering doing it again if I can do it at home. Are there any good, easy to use home glosses out there people have tried?

    • John Frieda makes at home gloss in several shades. There’s also one by Garneir that is a clear glosss that I liked. Also add fish oil pills to your diet (if you can); makes a crazy difference.

      • I use the John Frieda clear gloss a couple of times a week and it does add some shine. I take fish oil too so it could be the combination.

      • Sydney Bristow :

        Oohh related to this, I thought there used to be a red one but I can’t find it. I’m not even sure if it would work but I’d like to add a little reddish tint to my hair. I don’t want to actually commit to coloring it yet and I’m scared to try temporary dye since I heard red is the hardest color to get rid of. Any ideas? Would the red gloss work if I could find it?

        • What color is your hair now? From my understanding of it there are clear glosses (no color) and tinted (color). I would think you’ll need the color. Or you could try a non-permanent dye, which is way easier to just wash out (natural instincts?). Also, I used to dye my hair red and I almost feel like it’s the opposite — it is so hard to *keep* red hair looking red. Though I do know what you mean, when I went back to my natural brown it was hard to get rid of the auburn tint to my hair (though it’s naturally a bit that way, too, which confused the issue).

        • big dipper :

          This is probably too late but red is a tough color. I really wanted to dye my hair red – I started with a “reddish brown” color because I have naturally brown hair. Then I used a box red dye which I liked (Garnier True Red) which washed out to a copper color that I wasn’t a huge fan of.

          Ultimately, I got my hair professionally dyed so that it would be red. I still had a fade problem (red is the hardest color to maintain, apparently) but I liked the color it faded to much more.

          After my like 9 month stint as a red head though I’m heading back to reddish brown. It’s just too hard to maintain the shade of red I like – it’s expensive to get it done and I hate sitting around at the salon every few weeks.

          P.S. If you have brown hair, those semi-permanent dyes sometimes are really ineffective. I tried semi-permanent first and my hair looked exactly the same.

          • Sydney Bristow :

            Yeah, it’s a medium brown naturally. I used to go blonde but finally got back to my natural color a few years ago and it’s so nice not to have to regularly color it anymore! I wore a red wig as part of a costume last year and really liked how it looked. I just don’t want to deal with the expense and upkeep again.

        • springtime :

          Might be too late for a comment- i have golden blonde hair. I used the red gloss to make my hair look red and it definitely did- was strawberry blonde, you could tell there was red in it for sure. you have to use it every day though to maintain the colour if you want it to be that obvious. It got to be a pain. Bonus though was that it washes out easily. I have also dyed my hair dark brown and that took awhile to grow out (i loved it but again, maintenance was too hard- I guess i really am a true blonde)

    • Warning: I used the Clairol gloss kit hoping to achieve a salon gloss treatment effect and it lightened my hair. When I called Clairol to complain and they said that gloss treatments have peroxide in them and therefore can lighten hair 1-2 shades.

    • I really like Dove’s Nourishing Oil as a hair product.

  24. How many diploma-like things should I put on the wall? I am an associate in a law firm.

    Here is what I could possibly put up: law school diploma, undergrad diploma, certificate of admission to the bar, and then random things like an honors certificate from law school (my school’s version of Order of the Coif, sort of, but would be unrecognizable to people who aren’t alums), a business law certificate that my school offered (not hard to get, just had to get a certain amount of business law credits), and a law review certificate (low-level position, nothing important). So far I just have the law school diploma on the wall. My undergrad was not prestigious, but it has a big alumni network in my area.

    I don’t want to put up the other random certificates from law school, even though some other people at my firm have put stuff like that on their walls. I am leaning toward putting up the bar certificate. Also, keep in mind that I have NOTHING else on my walls and have been getting crap for this from other people (in a light-hearted, joking sort of way). Thoughts?

    • AnonInfinity :

      I have law and undergrad diploma and state bar certificate and law review certificate (I had a high position). That is standard for my firm. I think you should look around at the others in your office and mimic that as much as you’d like.

      If the walls feel empty and you don’t want to hang up the certificates, you could get some art to hang. I ordered a poster from art dot com and had it framed and matted. It looks great, and I get tons of compliments on it.

      • Thanks! Yeah, I definitely agree that it’s a know-your-office situation, but people in my office seem to be all over the place. Some people have nothing, other people have every certificate they ever received.

        Also, nice tip on the posters. Framing is so worth the money. A lot of cheaper artwork can look wonderful in the right frame.

        • AnonInfinity :

          Yes! My poster cost literally $20, but it looks so nice in the frame (which was considerably more than $20).

        • AnonInfinity :

          I should have put this in my other reply. Oops.

          My opinion is that you can always hang fewer diplomas and certificates than the other ppl in your office but that you shouldn’t hang more than everyone else. It always seems a little odd to me when Big Name Partner has up just a diploma and license but First Year has up all diplomas since 8th grade, 6 participation certificates, and 10 clippings from the college newspaper. It ends up seeming like First Year is trying too hard.

      • No one in my firm has their diplomas up, included partners. In fact, only 1 partner even has a picture up. All the white walls are depressing and frankly, next time I interview for a job I’m taking decor into account.

    • I have my undergrad degree, law degree, and 2 bar admissions on my wall. Well, that and my 4’x4′ picture of a fish (I had a lot of empty wall space!).

    • I think there’s nothing wrong with putting up all those. I have my diplomas elsewhere in my small law firm, but in my individual office, I have my admission certificate, a training certificate from a long training program in my field, and multiple “Certificates of Appreciation” from doing various pro bono events. The latter are all grouped together.

      I also have several landscape photos that my friend took and posted on facebook. I asked him if I could print them, frame and mat, and hang them in my office, and he said yes. He sent me high-res versions. So they hang here too and look really nice.

      Art is nice.

    • Mountain Girl :

      I am a CPA and I work in healthcare. I have my CPA certificate and my MBA diploma. I used to have more but I think as I have gotten more experience the educational certificates are not as important.

  25. Has anyone had an overwhelming desire to clean up their neighbor’s desk? I would never clean someone’s desk without asking, but my former desk neighbor (we were arranged in little islands of three desks each) had papers, pens, and folders all over her desk, making it so she couldn’t even put her laptop down. She had some cute stuff buried in there, like a nice mug with pens, drawings from her kids, little travel mementos, but no one could see any of it. It got to be a running joke because my desk was so clean, and I would gently shift her stuff back onto her desk when it spilled over onto mine, so it looked like I put up a clear wall between the desks to keep her stuff out.

    • Orangerie :

      Yup. My cube neighbor from hell, in addition to being extremely loud and distracting, is an unbelievable slob. Piles of paper everywhere, 4 half-empty bottles of water, dirty dishes… the works. The Monica Gellar inside me has to resist the urge to scrub her entire work area with bleach.

    • I feel the urge to clean one of my customers desk! I actually have thrown away empty paper coffee cups with mold he had on his desk before sitting at his desk!

  26. anon a mouse :

    I worked with someone years ago who had these amazing small shelves (maybe 12″ long by 3″ deep) that you could “hang” on cubicle walls – they attached essentially with long push pins. They were nice because they created small ledges to put picture frames, a little clock, etc.

    I’ve never seen them since and would love to find one to put in my sad cubicle. Anyone have ideas where to look? I’ve struck out at the normal places (see jane work, amazon, staples).

  27. Stephanie :

    I’m in house at a mid sized company, and I have all kinds of crap. Kid and family photos, my diplomas, and a lucky Chinese cat statute. Also the fan my boss brought me from Italy. I’m not trying to impress anyone at this point.

  28. EnglishProf :

    My theory for any office is this: if I ever leave my position, I only want to carry one box from the office to my car. Everything in my office (desk, drawers, and décor) can fit into one printer paper box (you know, the reams of paper the office manager orders in bulk? Those boxes).

    Therefore, my answer may be a bit different based on two things (1) my “intro” and (2) I’m not in a “corporate office”; I’m a college professor.

    My desk has a coffee mug with one or two professional looking (read engraved with school name) pens, family pictures (5 total), a small mirror (my back faces the door, so the mirror is for me to see who stands in the door while I’m working without my having to turn around), and a rotating desk top organizer (post it notes, push pins, paper clips, scissors, etc).

    My desk, in other words, stays clean. I don’t like clutter. The office, however, is more “inviting” (small tablecloth covered table, two chairs, one piece of inspirational wall art, faux flowers in a vase), but still simple enough for my tastes.

  29. One of our senior partner has a stuffed animal in his office (in addition to family pictures and certificates). I find it a bit odd everytime I go into his office. It’s just about the only warm and fuzzy thing about him.

  30. I have elegant, interesting glass paperweights. Just 2. People seem delighted to look and hold them. They make me happy too.

  31. The Asker :

    I just wanted to say thanks for answering my question! I’ve enjoyed reading all the replies, too.

    I really liked what you said regarding doing whatever makes you happy and productive! My desk is currently relatively empty compared to all the other desks in the building (also useful since I have to arrange documents several times a day), but I have some very pretty pencil trays, and a nice inbox and letter holder. I think this is what makes me happy, and having the extra space to work certainly keeps me productive!

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