A301: A Study of Desks
A publication to accompany the typeface Desk Face, February 2020.
I spend my summer working, watching Netflix and feeling apprehensive about the new studio. On the first day back, the desks are pushed to the sides as we sit on rows of violently green chairs facing the projected presentation at the back of the room. Hannah ends the class by suggesting we rearrange the studio this evening and claim our desks if we want them. Her only request is that we leave a hot desk so that students who don’t come in often have somewhere to sit. This is promptly ignored as everyone scrambles to find a space, scribbling names on masking tape and territorially sticking them to the edges of the desks.
The desks are 80 by 160 centimetres scuffed white plastic surfaces propped up by silver legs on wheels. They are pushed into twos, forming white squares against the edges of the studio. Large windows punctuate one wall of the studio, the other three walls are white and marked with tape and blu tack left by two years of previous occupants. The ceiling and floor are black, the lights are blindingly bright and seven white rectangles float above us for reasons that we can’t work out. Our desk is to the right of the door, pushed up against the first window. We have a radiator underneath the desk to keep us warm, a window for light and a windowsill that we fill with books and cans of coke. We are pleased. There are only six lockers this year, so I buy a plastic box from Morrisons for my things so they don’t get damaged. We quickly realise that there aren’t enough desks for everyone, names are ripped up and moved, artwork is taped to the walls. As the weeks move past us, the studio door bangs shut constantly, the lights leave spots in our eyes, the windows let in a draught and our productivity alludes us. Perhaps we are not so pleased.
Four weeks into the first term I am mugged on the walk home. The people I tell are sympathetic but they downplay my story because I wasn’t hurt and these things happen. But for me it’s the first time danger has entered my life. I am anxious and angry.
After a week away, I brave the journey to uni, holding my breath and craning my neck to see where it happened from the top of the bus. I arrive at the studio to find a pile of my sketchbooks on my desk, and the box that once held them to be missing. I cry on the phone to my Mum. I can’t work out why I’m so upset about a plastic box?
We all have a right to occupy space, yet (especially as women) we are trained to feel like we don’t deserve it. As a teenager I believed that someone’s bag of shopping deserved a seat on the bus more than me. I am pushed into the corner on the tube by men twice my size, I am forced off the pavement by teenagers walking home from school. By stealing that box, a stranger violated the space I had been desperately trying to make mine.
Susan Cain believes that the birth of the internet has brought a new popularity to working in teams. Today, every classroom has desks grouped together in pods to allow group learning and most offices are open plan ready for discussion and sharing ideas. Working in groups is considered essential to gaining skills in leadership and compromising, however sharing half-formed ideas in a group ‘brainstorm’ is uncomfortable for most introverts who prefer to test and develop an idea first before bringing it to an audience. Inevitably most introverts will stay quiet during these tasks, will be criticised for being shy, and will leave that experience disheartened.
‘Shy’ is not synonymous with ‘introverted’, a person can be confident and introverted or shy and extraverted. Jung’s archetypal introvert and extrovert were defined by their reaction to novelty, or the “object”. Introverts generally prefer to spend time in their own minds, and gain energy from being alone, whereas extroverts approach the object with enthusiasm and gain energy from being around other people. It is estimated that one third to one half of the US population are introverts.
In the 60s, Hans Eysenck brought together psychology and physiology, arguing that one of the essential differences between introverts and extraverts was their preference in brain stimulation levels. Stimulation can be anything from noise, to an image, to a socially arousing situation. He believed that we all have different optimal levels of brain stimulation that feel comfortable for us, and when we become under or over aroused we become uncomfortable in our surroundings or situation and need a change. He suggested that introverts have a lower optimal level of brain stimulation so are therefore more sensitive to things like loud noises or flashing lights. Therefore, introverts will perform better in private, quiet conditions compared to extroverts who perform better with more stimulation.
For an introvert, having a private space to work is essential for their success. In the studio, people fill their space with objects to establish it as theirs. We tape artwork to the walls, pile up library books and sketchbooks, leave mugs and pencils and hand sanitiser. The objects we leave and the way we leave them, say so much about our personalities.
After weeks of headaches, I have taped black sugar paper to the table in an attempt to stop light reflecting off the white tables in my eyes. This A1 space has inadvertently become the boundary I use as my desk, in which I have slowly built up a collection of objects. On the windowsill are library books, two by Stanislavski and two by Jan Tschihold. Taped to the window with blue masking tape is a screen-print I made last year, a letterpress print, a John Lennon postcard and a riso-print. I keep a pile of (mostly unused) sketchbooks on my desk, an issue of Elephant magazine and a copy of Pretty Ugly. A white ceramic dish painted with flowers holds a bottle of hand sanitiser and my student ID. A stranger observing my desk might notice how meticulously neat it is, and come to the conclusion that I’m an organised person. They might notice my blue masking tape or my hole punch and decide that I like stationary, that I take care in the objects I surround myself with.
The desk opposite me is pushed to the corner of the room, against a large window that looks out of our studio and into the communal area outside. On the window and the adjacent wall are taped up letterpress prints. The desk is empty apart from a long plank of wood, a pile of papers, a roll of masking tape and an empty box of brunch bars. Propped up between the desk and the wall is a white plank of wood. Perhaps a stranger would conclude that it’s occupant was a maker, choosing to work with physical type and wood rather than sit at a laptop. The desk remains empty most of the day, perhaps this person is a conscientious type who spends their days working hard in the workshops.
Messiness is generally attributed to a creative mind. Creativity is a messy brain process, and people who prioritise their ideas and problem solving over the organisation of their desk are ultimately seen to be the genius. As Albert Einstein famously said “if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”. However, for an introvert, a messy workplace can be far too much stimulation for them to be creative or productive.
For most of the first term I spend five days a week working at my desk in the studio. I’m mostly writing my dissertation which takes over my entire life, and towards the end of the term I find that writing and editing is easier at my kitchen table at home. The studio can be too bright and too noisy, I chat too much and spend too much money in Sainsbury's. In the time away from the studio I feel anxious about my desk, left alone and vulnerable in the studio. The day before my deadline I walk into uni to find my ceramic dish has been taken from my desk. I angrily pack my things into my drawer and my bag and bring them home.
After the Christmas holidays I find my desk as I left it and breathe a sigh of relief. This space can never really be mine and all I can do is accept this desk for what it is; temporary.
Written by Zoe Oswin