Set Up Your Desk to Maximize Productive Web Development

I get lots of questions about how both my desk and apps are set up and about how productivity can be improved. This is a very important topic for many reasons, yet it isn’t discussed very often on the web.

Properly setting up both your physical and virtual desks can make you more productive while also helping you avoid serious injury like frequent headaches and carpal tunnel syndrome.

While I’m no ergonomic expert, I’ve spent several days over the years tweaking my setup to be the quickest it can be. I’ll show you my own setup and give you some tips for your own.

My Physical Desk Setup


  1. Ergonomic & comfy chair–Chairs are not cheap, but you’re going to be spending lots of time sitting in one, so make sure you get a proper computer chair that won’t hurt your butt after sitting in the same place for 6 hours straight.
  2. Dual monitors–An absolute must for a developer, I seriously don’t know how I coded without one. This is probably the biggest productivity increaser besides Spaces (discussed below). However, I wouldn’t recommend going any larger than dual 22″ because you run the risk of painful neck strain.
  3. Wireless Keyboard & Mouse–No clutter means you’re not wasting time going through junk, unplugging or tangling up cords, or even falling off mousepads.
  4. Laptop–Quick and easy to take to client meetings or for working out of the office to stay sane. Having its designated resting space means it’s also out of the way when I don’t need it. My laptop has the same exact setup as my desktop, so there’s no adjustment or mistakes when switching back and forth.
  5. Wireless router/backup/printing–All-in-one devices mean less clutter and wires. Try finding products that do more than one thing at a time to reduce the visual clutter you have to deal with. Also, automatic backups are every computer user’s best friend!

My Virtual Desk Setup


Now that you’ve seen my physical desk, let’s look at my virtual one. The way your desktop is organized can greatly help or hinder your productivity and workflow.

Try to keep your desktop free of any apps. Keep your dock (in both Mac and PC) only filled with the apps you use daily, or at least more than once a week. This will help you find things quickly and easily.

The Layout of Apps

If you’re a Mac user, you probably already know what Spaces is. If you’re on a PC instead of Mac, Spaces won’t work for you. I haven’t tried it, but SourceForge offers a virtual desktop manager, VirtuaWin, that you might find helpful. (If you use VirtuaWin, or a similar PC app, let us know how you like it in the comments.)

Spaces is awesome for productivity because it gives you four virtual desktops that you can switch between with a set command (I use Apple + Arrow key for speed). If you’ve got a second monitor hooked up, that means you technically get eight desktops to work from!

While this may sound daunting and like overkill at first, it’s perfect for organizing your apps in designated areas by task. Here’s how my Spaces are organized:

Space 1 (top left)


Space 1 is my development area. I leave Coda on the left monitor and FireFox on the right. This allows me to view the site I’m working on almost simultaneously. It also makes using Firebug easier because I can view what changes I made in the browser while typing them into Coda.

Space 2 (top right)


Space 2 is my browsing and communications area. I keep my email app on the left monitor opened to about 3/4 of the monitor space. The rest of the left hand monitor is taken up by Adium and Skype. The right monitor is taken up by Chrome.

Space 3 (bottom left)


Space 3 is entirely for Photoshop in both the left and right monitors. Normally, the menus are located on the right side and the design on the left.

Space 4 (bottom right)


Space 4 is for client management. On the left monitor, Billings takes up the whole screen, and on the right is iCal, so I can view my schedule while writing out contracts and quotes.

More Tips

  • If you’re able to use Spaces, or its equivalent, set up your apps to automatically open in their proper space. This prevents cluttering up of one space and wasting time having to move the apps.
  • If you don’t have access to Spaces, keep all the apps closed that you aren’t using right at the moment to avoid window clutter.
  • Try finding all in one apps to reduce the clutter of apps you use. Some examples are:
    • All in one IDEs that have FTP built in
    • Multiple chat client apps
    • Project management that includes billing and time tracking
    • Browsers with web dev tools
  • Do what feels natural and if you keep clicking in the wrong area for something, that means it probably needs to be moved.
  • Give yourself a couple of days to get used to a new layout or piece of equipment before you think it doesn’t work for you.
  • The less clicks or app switches you need to make, the faster you’ll work.

Just like our code does, our setups also need to be tweaked and perfected over time to get it right. Do what feels comfortable for your workflow!

Your Turn

Do you have any productivity tips? What have you done that’s helped you work faster?


  1. says

    I’ve never enjoyed having my desktop have a giant split down the middle, so I went with a 30″ at 2560×1600 res. It has a lot the same effect, but all in one screen.

    Virtual desktops are amazing. When I started using Linux 15 years ago, I quickly marveled that Mac and Win didn’t have the same thing built in. It’s good to see OS X catching up some!

  2. says

    Multiple monitors are definitely great. One can run multiple computers with one mouse and keyboard by using synergy as well. It’s a little tricky to configure, easier in windows, but once it’s up and running you are golden. You have the ability to copy and paste text from one computer to the other.

    Something that I may be completely lost without without would be a database application. I keep all logins, urls and misc. data in a db. The records are then filtered by client name, and can be easily ctrlA, copied and pasted in a google doc spreadsheet and shared. This works great for teaming up on projects — especially when one is setting up client accounts for social media and such. The nice thing about google docs is that if the person on the other end ads a record, it’s updated globally, so there aren’t multiple copies floating around between the editors.

    Thanks for the wonderful post!

  3. says

    I have a similar set-up but run a Mac and PC off the the same keyboard/mouse.

    My screens are Mac | Main PC | Extended PC.

    I use Synergy to run the Mac off the PC keyboard/mouse.

    What I love about this set up is being able to easily manage testing on both platforms.

  4. says

    Hi Amber,

    Thanks for the great tips. I’m very interested how you set up dual monitors for your desktop as I always find myself running out of space. Could you provide some guidance or point me to any place where there’s a detail description how to do such set up.

    Thank you very much.

  5. says

    Dual monitors are great – but why not use your laptop as one of those monitors? As for the wireless everything – I find less need for that since cables are easily hidden. And don’t forget speakers for tunes while working!

  6. says

    i LOVE my dual monitor setup. I don’t use spaces, and generally, I just work on my main monitor, and keep my email, IM and calendar open wide on the 2nd monitor. Since I’m constantly in those three apps, it’s great to always have them available, yet not taking up space on my work monitor.
    PS – Did you clean your desk immediately before this photo, or is it always like that? :)

  7. says

    You sure are organized! Thanks for sharing with us. I have been thinking about a new chair lately as my back is feeling the long hours.

    One tip I have for people is to use something like One Note to organize your information. You can use it for personal, work, clients, passwords, articles, blogging, pictures, videos, and more all organized. This has changed my life. I wrote a review with some shots of One Note at my site if you are interested.

    Back to the article. I have never used two monitors. I can see the benefits of this but it is something I will need to work my way up to. For me, it may make things more confusing. It would just give me more room to open more stuff up:) I am a wanderer… which is good because it is how I stumbled across this site… and now return to it daily:)

  8. says

    I added a second monitor a few months ago…and when I have to work on my laptop away from the office now, I about go crazy with only one screen! You’re right on with that recommendation.

    And, I’d never heard of VirtuaWin…but I just downloaded it to give it a try. Anything to be more productive.

  9. says

    @Lynn I’m not sure what you mean by showing you how to set up dual monitors. Do you mean physically, like what kind of cables do you need? I’ve shown above how to set up the desktops with duals.

    @Glenn You can’t use a laptop as a monitor. Originally I used my laptop and an external, but working on 13″ was very limited and I needed some more power, so I bought a 22″ mac. To use 2 external monitors gets expensive and requires a special adaptor; and I don’t believe a laptop’s monitor can be set up as an external…plus it would take up too much space on my desk and wouldn’t be productive.

    @Melek No my desk stays that empty :) I actually have an envelope on it right now and it’s driving me nuts, I absolutely can’t work on a cluttered desk…too distracting!

  10. says

    Interesting read. Dual Monitor setup is superb. Browsing picture library, when editing photos Stay on top of your e-mail while working last but not least Gaming….
    PS: I cant think of my life with our Dual Monitor..

  11. says

    I use a 24” iMac and a second 24” monitor and it increased my productivity by 150%.

    The nice thing is: Lightroom allows you to use the second monitor to display your collection. Selecting and comparing photos is a lot easier.

    The main problems are (especially with working with photos): It is hard to find a monitor that displays your photos the same way your other monitor does. I have hardware-calibrated mine but it’s still not perfect.
    Oh and Photoshop CS4 sometimes behaves strange when I drag my panels to the second monitor.

    What I do when I code HTML and CSS (with Espresso): Get the Firefox Extension ‘ReloadEvery’. Load the HTML you are working on into Firefox, set the reload time to 2 seconds and move the window to the other monitor = real-time browser preview. :-)

  12. jPomfret says

    One thing I found to keep me organised, would work for anyone not just developers is fences, a neat little application that organises your desktop into areas (that are fenced off) so you can group things together.

  13. says

    I agree that dual monitors is a must. Nothing increases productivity more than lots of space to expand and move around windows. I work on dual 30-inch Dells and you are right about larger than 22-inch being a bit of – literally – a stretch. But I keep mostly secondary stuff like my email inbox, news reader and Twitter client on the second monitor, so I hardly ever have to turn my head for prolonged periods of time.

    I can’t seem to get the hang of Spaces, though. I tried it when it was introduced and I was constantly searching for apps and windows. And I can’t really divide my apps up into logical groups as with my work style it’s all kind of intermingled.

  14. says

    I love fences and one note! Basket notepads for linux is similar to one note. Something that is worth the mention here in this thread, an app that goes beyond synergy’s capabilities. It’s for windows only: My partner uses it all the time.

    He’s going to give me his mac soon. I’m really excited about that. Not sure how I will fit it in with 3 monitors currently on my desk though, lol! I think that I will like the mac environment quite a bit — shares the same kernel as linux.

    @Christina: You can get an avatar for your comments here:

  15. says

    Great post. I also would strongly agree with your dual monitor suggestion. Right now I use my notebook as both a portable and desktop solution and when at home I plug a 22″ monitor into it to extend the laptop display. It work great! I’d love to have the virtual spaces like Linux and Mac have, but I need a lot of specialized software for my engineering classes that aren’t available for either, and I don’t like dual-booting.

  16. says

    Hi Amber,

    One quick question:What about Quicksilver for productivity and an iconless dock? Quick keyboard app-opener

    Thanks for those great tips.

  17. says

    Nice one Amber!

    But what about the number pad on your keyboard (ONLY problem with Mac Wireless Keyboard)?

    A few tips that could increase your productivity even more (BTW, I use a PC for primary work at office, and MacBook Pro at work and at home):

    For Mac:
    – QuickSilver is a MUST, forget the Dock when you can type your way to what you need.
    – MobileMe or equiv keeps my MBP, iPhone, and PC in sync…
    – ExpanDrive offers FTP/SFTP access integrated into Finder (Awesome!)

    For PC:
    – I have 3 21″ monitors and keep all windows maximized.
    – To make better use of three screens, check out UltraMon (it uses multiple taskbars, has hotkeys, and can stretch pretty pictures across ALL monitors)

  18. says

    Very nice article, i was happy to see that I already implement most of what you mention with the exception of spaces, i have just set it up and am going to give it a go.
    thanks again!


  19. says

    This is a really interesting post! I used to use dual screen at College but my uni has very few and they are almost always taken! Since Amber and everyone else recommends it I’m going to try to set it up again. Sadly my current pc at home can only handle one monitor. I have a 22″ and a spare 17″ lying around for when I upgrade :) it’s really insightful to know how others do it!

  20. says

    @Chris I use Billings for time tracking invoicing and quoting. I don’t use any project management software…don’t see the need for it.

    @rodrigo No I haven’t ever heard of them. I only keep a few things in my doc that I use everything, so it’s less than a second to find what I need.

    @Liam Will is right, its the Twelve South BookArc Desktop Stand for Notebooks available here:

  21. says

    EXCELLENT Article Amber!

    To those asking how to use dual monitors in addition to the MB-Pro monitor will involve purchasing a Matrox DualHead-2-Go or TripleHead-2-Go. The Duals allow for a dual monitor setup plus the MB-Pro monitor and runs in the $250 range last I checked. Thought about trying it out, but the expense made me shy away from it. Spaces gives me what I need on my MB-Pro.

  22. says

    It’s a bit ironic that I ran across this post approximately two hours after connecting a second monitor, giving me a 2-display setup for the first time (a 24″ Dell as primary & a 19″ NEC as secondary). I was wondering how other people organize their dual monitor setups, and this article gave me a few good ideas.

    I now have my primary design apps on the Dell (CS4 tool palettes on the NEC), and email/Tweetie/NetNewsWire/iCal on the NEC. It’ll take me a while to get used to the new layout, but so far I think it’s great.

    One thing that’s a bit disconcerting is the difference in brightness between the two monitors. The NEC is six years old and doesn’t hold a candle (pun intended) to the brand new Dell. But, again, I think it’s just a matter of getting used to it. I’m not inclined at this point to reduce the brightness of the Dell.

  23. says

    Thanks for the wake-up call. I first used dual monitors almost five years ago at my first job out of college, and at first I thought it was so terribly wasteful (I worked at a government office, and I didn’t want to feel like I was taking part in wasting tax money), but within a few days I was hooked. I couldn’t believe how great it was to have my editor on one screen and my my browser on the other, *and be able to see them both at the same time*! I haven’t been privileged to use duals since I left that job, and even though I pride myself on being a Linux cool kid, I hardly make use of my multiple virtual desktops. That would definitely help.

  24. says

    The only one I don’t follow is having dual monitors. I had a desktop and a laptop until about 3 months ago when I gave my desktop to my mom. She needed a new computer very badly. I am now on my laptop only, so dual monitors isn’t going to happen soon. Tight budget.

  25. says

    As you also have a laptop you can use it as a third screen.
    The productivity increase won’t be as dramatic as when you had added the second one but it is anyway a strong improvement. Also you don’t need to use 2 mouses and 2 keyboards. Personally I use an Ubuntu Desktop with the Quicksynergy application which allows me to share mouse and keyboard between the 2 computers.

    Examples of use (Screen1 – Screen2 – Screen 3)

    Editor – Firefox – Firebug
    Editor – Documentation – Browser
    Editor – Browser – Photoshop

    Also Linux systems are allowing to use remote SSH or FTP connections as a local file-system so that I can edit a file directly on server. That definitely is a must have in place of transferring files with FTP.

    Should I say that I am never asked to use my credit card to use any software ?

  26. says

    Web developers often overlook this, but I think it is becoming increasingly important to organise both your physical and virtual spaces. The set up shown in this example is excellent, there is absolutely no clutter and everything is laid out for usability and ease of access.

    The software organisation hints given can be adopted by many developers. Having programs laid out in clear sections, with them being split across two screens allows for minimum reorganising of tabs and screens, so your workflow is more productive. In built tools such as spaces allows this to be taken further so you don’t have any distractions.

    I will be interested to read what other developers have to say about this, and any further hints and tips they may give.

  27. says

    Wow. Dual monitors really look cool! I only have one so I am really overwhelmed by this set-up! Thanks for sharing this one! I will definitely try to come up with another monitor sooN!

  28. says

    @ Will Mason

    I live in the UK, a cheapo $15 card would probably cost on importing hahaha, I’ll have a look around the local shops soon though.

    Even the follow up advice on this article is really good. The use of screen space for apps is particularly handy! One thing they don’t teach at Uni

  29. says

    For the PC spaces equivalent I use DeskSpace, but am not really a fan of multiple desktops.

    With my dual monitors I prefer my left monitor to be oriented horizontally like everyone else, but I keep my right monitor oriented vertically – this means on most web sites I have zero or very little vertical scroll, it also makes looking at documents easy as I can view the whole page at more than 100% easily.

    Generally I code with notepad++ on the left monitor set up with dual panes – CSS on one pane and the whatever page I’m working on on the other pane – and then refresh the site in the right monitor.

    Ultimately I want to get either 4 monitors stacked in a grid or more likely get 1 27″ monitor in horizontal profile with dual vertical monitors on either side.

  30. says

    I love my dual monitor setup! I use Ubuntu, so I can also have 4 virtual spaces (with dual monitor, it allows for 16 individual spaces… but I have yet to need that many!)

    I keep my left monitor dimmed and use it for surfing, research, email, and most text applications. Dimming it keeps the headaches to a minimum. My right monitor is used for my Virtual Box so that I can use Illustrator. I also use it for photo manipulation, since it is not dimmed and gives more accurate color appearance.

    Now… if only I could keep my physical desktop as clutter-free as yours!

  31. Kenny H says

    Can’t imagine working without my dual monitor setup either. Currently I’ve got a MacPro with two Apple LED Cinema Displays of 24″. I myself like a clean desk also, can’t stand clutter. All my papers, mail, magazines are nicely hidden in designated drawers. There are no wires across my desk, all wires are hidden under my desk and my keyboard and mouse are wireless.

    Overall great post.

  32. says

    Hey Amber, great job with this article. I found it really helpful.

    I was Windows user exclusively for over 10 years now, but I’ll be switching to Macs next month. I’m a productivity freak, but didn’t have any idea how to make this transition from Windows to Mac. Now I know a bit more.

    Main reason I’m switching is becase Windows is really not made for creatives and kills productivity. More than that – there are great apps for Mac that you can’t find equivalent for Windows, or at least not so good (my brother uses Macs, so I saw many great things already). I never saw better app than Coda or especially – Billings.

    Although I managed to work out some “working plan” and routine on Windows – it’s not much.

    I’m getting more and more irritated when using it. It makes no sense to stick with it any longer :).

  33. says

    @John Walker That is too bad, didn’t even think about it.

    BTW, for everyone out there who has NOT tried (or is just trying, @bigjobsboard) Dual or Triple monitors…it will take a little bit of time to get used to. I used Dual for years, and then went to Triple. It has totally changed my life, but it doesn’t happen over night.

    @heavysilver You are very right. I’m surprised it has not been mentioned either. I work in an office so I need to use headphones, but my best work comes at 240-280BPM.

  34. says

    I didn’t mention a surround sound or external speakers, because the speakers on my new iMac are phenomenal….and I don’t think my ears could handle anything louder :P I like to keep my music low-medium anyways so I can think ;)

  35. Janar says

    I would like to pick on one small thing. About comparing PC as MS windows. PC also runs linux and usually distros also come with multiple desktops built in.

  36. says

    In my opinion, multiple desktops don’t compare to multiple monitors. It’s basically like minimizing an application. For instance you can’t view each desktop simultaneously. There may be a feature of the linux multi desktop that I’m not familiar with.

    My current setup is linux as host, middle and left monitor, and windows as guest on my right. Mac will soon be integrated into this picture via synergy to share mouse and keyboard.

  37. says

    @Janar You are right, but it is still the common term… And technicly a Mac is a PC too, since PC is short for Personal Computer…

    So to clarify, its Mac, *nix, and Windows. And they are all PC’s :)

    @Sü Smith Multiple desktops are NOT a replacement for multiple monitors, but multiple monitors are not a replacement for multiple monitors… USE BOTH, HAHAHA.

    Different desktops for different task groups, all spread over all your monitors. BAM!

  38. says

    Multiple monitors are great but even better is multiple computers. Use web mail and on-line documents such as Google Docs so work in progress is never tied to one computer. I also store some notes for in progress web sites above the root folder for ready access from any computer I am using at that moment. If one computer has performance problems or is busy uploading files multitask by having different jobs in progress concurrently on different computers. This greatly eases the consequences of computer or hardware failure. I have one computer that does nothing but backups while I am working on other web sites.

  39. says

    Haha interesting read! I’ve seen the dual-monitor setup before, it’s very cool, and works wonders. I agree with Melek, how’d that desk get so clean? Mine’s a mess!

  40. says

    This article and the following comments have been a fun read. So nice to know I’m not alone out there. Most people look at you like you’re talking about rocket science when you go into anything about window management (i.e. blank stare, and then change the subject as soon as they can).

    On the PC, I’ve done both dual-screen and a single widescreen setup. My taskbar was always set to handle 3 rows of buttons to manage everything. I’ve just switched to Mac, and this dual widescreens with Spaces approach makes a lot of sense. I’m just waiting for my DVI adapter to come in so I can implement it.

    It looks like a lot of people are using Coda. I’m actually going with Espresso as I got tired of making changes in Firebug and copying them back to my editor; doing it all directly in the stylesheet is something I’m really looking forward to since my work is all on CMS websites.

    Another handy tool is a little app called Cinch. It brings some basic Windows 7 tiling to Mac, something your average user doesn’t need but definitely helpful for developer types.

  41. says

    thank you for sharing and helping us work more effectively….
    i always believe that experience counts a lot more than pure information.
    I use a PC (win XP). I use to group icons on the left and right…important and current work ones on right and the shorcuts on left…
    i’ve put all my developer apps on the quick lauch bar in the taskbar and see them as soon as my pc starts and i’m able to lauch them fast….

    i think application lauchers are heavy when in comes to memory consumption hence i go the quick lauch way…


  42. says

    Thanks for the tips. I use 2 24″ monitors with my coding app on the left monitor and my browser on the right. I like to work on a live server so I can refresh my browser on the right while making coding changes on the left.

    I also use Photoshop on my right monitor with my tablet right in front of it and my keyboard off to the left a little.

  43. says

    Blame my four months of using a Mac, but I never heard of Spaces… and only now see it in the utilities folder. What’s it all about, though? Never assume people know what you’re writing about!

  44. says

    While it is important to keep your desk clutter free, it is equally importnat to assure that the following are in good order:

    1. Lighting – need proper lighting that is not reflecting off your screen/screens
    2. Wireless key board is a good idea, but much too often, people tend to place it in an inconveninet way – incorrect posture can cause carpel-tunnel syndrome
    3. chair / workstation height

  45. says

    Wow, very organized!.. I only see dual / multiple monitors on movies only used by brilliant-hacker-cast. This article is such a good read. If tips are done, no wonder productivity doubles.

  46. says

    @Amber Everyone at my agency that uses a laptop instead of a Mac Pro uses it as an second monitor. It actually is quiet space-conscious since with a stand you have all of the space under the computer for an external HD, books, business cards, your phone, etc.

    Having said that, I think that using a 13″ would be difficult, but that’s why the second monitor should be your primary use. You can keep email, calendars, twitter, chat, color palates, etc on your small screen, while using the second monitor for your design/development work.

    I use a 15″ and it’s actually a great and efficient (and cheaper) setup.

  47. says

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  48. says

    This blog post was absolutely fantastic. When I used to work in electroplating they sometimes encouraged us to write, but I could never come up with something as well written as that.

  49. says

    The dual monitor setup is the most important aspect of the desktop. The other device I will add to your setup is a table like the iPad. It also has the capacity to add a display area if needed with a simple to use app. At the same time you can use it for client presentations, etc.

  50. Kyle says

    Total Finder( for tabbed finder display = no more finder window clutter. Better Touch Tool( for amazing gesture options. Textmate(recently made the switch from coda, and so far loving it). Air Display(, for a wifi third monitor on your ipad or iphone…it’s really amazing how awesome it works. Macfusion for a nice way to ssh without have to use terminal window.

    thank you!

  51. says

    I’m such a multi monitor joneser, I have 4 now — 3 in front of me with one centered and a monitor up above the left one. It is super sweet for productivity. (Shhh — I didn’t mention the other machine as a 5th on the very left and the lappy both tied to synergy)

  52. says

    Every web developer and webmaster needs such type of work environment for better productivity. Thanks for sharing this information, I am also trying to make better my work environment.

  53. says

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