205-223-4415 shawn@shawnwright.net

Where I work and the environment surrounding me is crucial to my productivity. I have worked alone for the past decade, and I can adjust my environment to the task at hand. Most of the time, when I am creating, I work in silence. As I write this, not a song is playing. I am a little worried that the army of leaf blowers and grass mowers is about to descend on my block at any minute, disrupting my work. 

My first graphic design job was at a computer company called Dyatron in 1986. I was hired by the head of advertising, a writer, and I was going to be in the corner of his large office. I was fine with the situation but noticed a large empty closet in his office. It was large enough to have an art table, chair, and small bookcase. I had maintenance add a wall-mounted phone to the closet, and I moved in. I loved this cubby of an office. I didn’t have to listen to my boss’s mechanical keyboard, and he left me alone. Some days when I had the door shut, I would come out of my office and have these pink “while you were out” notes taped to my door. The secretaries didn’t realize I was there. I eventually got a real office, but this worked for me at the moment.

I moved on to other jobs where I shared a large office with another designer and was in a legitimate corporate office cube. Honestly, it worked well for me. I enjoyed the people I worked with, and I had a window. I could block out other sounds by listening to music with headphones. Even still, there was not the privacy that an office would have given me. It was never more apparent than when a co-worker would comment on calls I made when I was going through some personal problems. 

Over the years, I have run the gamut of office spaces. Some were open, and most had individual offices. But I was lucky; as a business owner, I could set up my working environment to fit my needs. 

I have read about advertising agencies and design firms in larger cities that would have open floor plans for artists and writers. Encouraging, or maybe forcing, interaction on creative projects. I read one story about an agency that took great joy in the open floor plan with a senior art director serving as the DJ, pumping out the music of his choice to drive on the other creatives. I imagined this like the drummer on a Viking ship, pounding out the strokes of the oars. The thought of working in that agency gives me the chills to this day. I wish I could remember who this was because I am curious how long this lasted.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an article about the open floor plan called, The Immortal Awfulness of Open Plan Workplaces. 

“For decades, research has found that open plan offices are bad for companies, bad for workers, bad for health and bad for morale. And yet they just won’t die. Human beings, if they are to thrive, need a bit of privacy — walls and a door. And yet employers, decade after decade, neglect to give workers what they need, refuse to do what’s in their own self-interest.” Wrote Brooks.

During the height of Covid, people went home to work. Now that we have been called back into the office, many resist and want to continue working from home. There could be many reasons for this, but I am sure getting out of the office cube and the open floor plan is a big part of it. 

MY SOUND AT HOME

Maybe you are one of those employees who never returned to the office, or you are considering freelancing and staying home. Your work environment is more important than you probably think. Here is what I am doing, and maybe it will help you as you search for your perfect environment.

As I mentioned, I like working in silence, without the leaf blowers. This is especially important when I write. When I work on graphic design projects, I prefer my music not to have lyrics, so I don’t sing along. My favorite music to work too is smooth jazz. Not many will admit to liking smooth jazz but it is perfect. 

If I want something even more subtle, I have some curated Spotify playlists I follow, such as: 

chill lofi study beats
lofi hop hop music
Butter  
Workday Lounge  
Music for Concentration  

But let’s say music is too much noise and silence allows too much noise in your head, then I recommend Brown Noise.

BROWN NOISE FOR CONCENTRATION

Brown noise can be described as having a neutral, dense sound. It’s like White Noise but has a lower, deeper quality. Sounds of wind, rain, rushing water, or a gentle fan are examples of brown noise. Other kinds of noise with different frequencies are identified by colors, such as white noise, pink noise, blue noise, and purple noise. Do you have a sound machine by your bedside to help you sleep through your partner’s snoring? Then you know these noises. But they are not just for going to sleep.

The New York Times article “Can Brown Noise Turn Off Your Brain?” talks about how Brown Noise is gaining popularity with online ADHD groups as a way to help with concentration. One of my sons has ADHD, and I am looking forward to introducing brown noise to see if it helps him concentrate while he does his homework or reads. There are many playlists on music streaming sites, YouTube, and apps. You can also buy a dedicated sound machine.

To get you started, here are some playlists:

Spotify playlists:

Brown Noise
Deep Brown Noise to Improve Focus
Brown Noise For Studying

YouTube videos:

Smoothed Brown Noise 8-Hours – Remastered, for Relaxation, Sleep, Studying and Tinnitus
BROWN NOISE, 24 Hours Black Screen, 100% Focused Solution for Study and Work
Brown Noise | Cockpit of an intergalactic Spacecraft

Apple Music playlists:

Brown Noise: Loops for Relaxation, Deep Sleep, Meditation, And Babies
Brown Noise
Brown Noise (2 Hours)

And there are many sound machine apps and brown noise generators in the Apple and Google stores.

THE COFFEE SHOP

Some years ago, I came across an app and website called Coffitivity . Cofficity creates the ambient sound from a cafe to make your house feel like you are not alone. If you have never tried it or one of the cafe sound competitors, give it a shot. You may be surprised at how soothing it is. The coffee is cheaper at home, and the chair is more comfortable. 

When it comes to open office space, Adam Grant said it best. “The evidence is clear: open offices are bad for people and organizations. You get 27% more sick days, 14% lower cognitive performance, and ironically, 70% less face-to-face interaction. For the sake of health, productivity, and collaboration, we should all have access to spaces with doors.” Amen.

If you are struggling with your work environment, go the extra step to improve it the best you can, and sound is a great place to start. Invest in some good headphones and find a good music playlist or brown noise. If you are struggling with being home by yourself, find the playlists that will help you focus, or as silly as you think it may be, try using cafe sounds. No matter what the situation, your work is bound to improve. 

Photo by Abdullah Ghatasheh: https://www.pexels.com/photo/calm-body-of-water-during-golden-hour-1631677/

Shawn Wright
Shawn Wright is a graphic designer and podcaster living in Birmingham, Alabama. You can find his design work at shawnwright.net. You can find his podcasts, Alabama Short Stories at alabamashortstories.com and the Shades Cahaba Oral History Project podcast at shadescahabahistory.com. His designs are for sale at TeePublic.com, Redbubble.com and Society6.com.
Shawn Wright
Shawn Wright

Latest posts by Shawn Wright (see all)