The Four Ways to Configure a Desk

Note: The following is Post 4 in the series “How to Set Up Your Desk.”  This series has been developed further and is now available as an ebook on Amazon

There are four different ways to configure a desk: rectangular, parallel, L-shaped, and U-shaped. The size of the room and other factors may not leave all of these options open to you, but understanding these possibilities helps you know how to make the best use of your space.

The rectangular configuration consists of just a standard desk. It’s just a rectangle with no other components, like this:

A rectangular configuration gives you less workspace, but is fine if you have a small area to work with or prefer to keep your desk area to a minimum.

A rectangular desk is a good option. But I used to fall into the error of thinking it was the only option. So even though I found it a bit cramped, I used this kind of desk at home for the longest time simply because whenever I needed to buy a desk, this is what I automatically thought of. It was helpful to realize eventually that, for those who would like a bit more workspace, there are some other ways to do things.


With the parallel configuration, you add another rectangular unit behind you to provide additional workspace. Here is an example:

An L-shaped configuration also adds another desktop unit, but to the side rather than the back. My desk at home is L-shaped:

You can create this configuration by putting together two rectangular desk unit or a rectangular unit and a bookshelf or credenza-type-thing. Or you can purchase an L-shaped unit at IKEA or another such place. I prefer the latter option, because then your desk is a single unit.

A lot of cubicles provide people with L-shaped desks. So there’s at least one thing that cubicles have going for them.

The U-shaped configuration is really an L-shaped configuration with another component added on to the other side of the L:

You can also create a U-shape by putting together independent units or by purchasing a U-shaped desk.

I find the L-shaped provides the best workflow pattern, which I’ll describe in the post on how to use your desktop. The U-shaped configuration lets you do everything that the L-shaped does, and then adds on a few bonuses. You can still do the same workflow pattern with the rectangular and parallel configurations, but you have to make a few modifications. I’ll cover this in the post on how to use your desktop.

Integrating the Drawer Units
No matter what your configuration, there are actually two components that you need to have: the desk itself, and the drawer unit(s).

Many desk units come with the drawers built in. I don’t regard that as an advantage, typically, because it seems that a lot of desks are not made with an understanding of how to use a desk effectively. Therefore, you often end up stuck with the wrong kind of drawers or the drawers are not in the most effective locations.

So whenever possible, I recommend getting a desk without built-in drawers and then buying a separate drawer unit (or two) that you put under the desk. This provides you with the most flexibility, especially if you change your mind later on about where you want the drawers to be.

For the drawer unit, I recommend getting a three-drawer unit. These units have two regular drawers on top and then a file drawer beneath.

There are variations on this. For example, my drawer unit at home is a bit odd. There is only one regular drawer at the top, but the file drawer actually contains within it two additional regular drawers, with space for files beneath:

This requires the extra step of having to open two drawers every time that I want to access one of the lower regular drawers (the main file drawer and then the regular drawer within), but on the positive side it gives me three regular drawers plus the file drawer.

I will talk more about how to use the drawer units in the upcoming post on that. Some general guidelines are that if you only have one drawer unit, I would put it on your preferred-hand side under the desk. So if you have a rectangle or parallel desk and are right-handed, it would go right under the right side of the desk. With an L-shaped or U-shaped unit, the unit would go under the L on the right side. The second unit would then go on the other side. Here’s an example that shows this two-unit setup:

One Last Thing
As I mentioned in the first post, it is hard to find anything in the productivity literature on how to set up your desk. Among those discussions that do exist, many make a distinction between the desk and computer workstation.

I do not make that distinction. I find it kind of funny, actually.

A lot of those discussions seem to have been from a long time ago, perhaps when using a computer during your workday was rare. But it still persists in some forms, because if you go to IKEA’s website even today, they make a distinction between “desks” and “computer workstations.”

This is a misguided distinction, in my opinion. These days, there is not one part of your desk where you do “paperwork” and a different place where you do “computer work.” There is still some actual stuff to do with paper, but I find this almost always involves the simultaneous use of the computer. If you try to process “paperwork” away from your computer, you’ll find yourself always going over to your computer in the midst of it.

Likewise, when using your computer, you often use some real paper at the same time — maybe because you printed an article that was easier to refer to in print or because you find it easiest to capture a few action points in a capture journal rather than electronically.

So I have my monitor right in front of me, and deal with both paper and electronic stuff together, right there (sometimes creating temporary piles to my left or right, as I’ve mentioned before and will describe later).

Everyone knows this. But the discussions of desk setup that do exist need to be updated to reflect this, and some desk manufacturers and stores need to integrate this more fully into their thinking as well.

Beyond that, the interesting observation here, in my opinion, is this: It’s not that we’ve seen the end of paper, although it has decreased. It’s that now when we do handle paper, there is usually an electronic component to it as well, whether that means checking out a website or adding something to a to-do list because of what you came across in the (physical) mail.

So we don’t have the end of paper, but we do have the end of dealing with paper alone. The most effective desk setup recognizes this, and is designed for the integrated utilization of paper-based and electronic-based workflow.

Posts in This Series

  1. How to Set Up Your Desk: An Introduction
  2. How to Set Up Your Desk: Basic Principles
  3. Excursus: Against Desk Hotels
  4. The Four Ways to Configure a Desk
  5. Where to Put Your Desk
  6. What to Put on Your Desktop and How to Use It
  7. What to Put in Your Desk Drawers and How to Use Them
  8. The Rest of the Room: How to Set Up Your Office