SOHO Design

There are days when Kris Napier's workload includes analyzing an assortment of low-fat ice cream or taste-testing 22 brands of peanut butter. That's life as a renowned dietitian. But there are also times when work isn't so sweet.

Four years ago, when Napier was completing her first cookbook, her chronic illness acted up. The lupus that she's lived with for 20 years struck her hips with unusual severity. She ended up spending two weeks in the hospital. Not that it knocked her off schedule for finishing the book -- or anything else. "Sometimes I have to stay in the hospital, but there are still 85 million projects to attend to," she says.

Besides writing books, Napier develops recipes and writes health articles for magazines. She also serves as a consultant to clinics and hospitals, oversees the creation of content for the weight-control site, and gives dietary advice to a few clients a year through her small private practice.

Napier employs two full-time assistants, who work out of her home office in the Cleveland suburb of Mayfield Village. She designed the office so that she'd be able to direct her assistants to things that she needs when she's away. "I like to be organized so that I can tell someone, 'I need book number 11, with the red sticker, on the fourth shelf," she says.

The mere fact that Napier's husband, children (aged 19 and 14), or one of her assistants could locate book number 11 in Napier's 16-by-14-foot home office in nanoseconds tells you where her priorities are. She's all about staying productive -- regardless of the circumstances -- by creating an elaborately organized office setup. Her office proves that an efficient work space doesn't always have to feature high-tech devices and copious amounts of wiring. Just as often it can stem from its owner's conscientious arrangement of work materials.

In Napier's case, the design of the room itself -- shelves, tables, and bookcases -- plays a large part, too. For example, instead of a desk or a computer table, she employs a long Formica counter. Three feet wide and 14 feet long, it occupies most of the 16-foot-long wall beside the room's doorway. It's here that Napier writes her books and articles, using a computer that sits near the far right end of the counter. Having an extra-large work surface rather than a desk allows her to keep her many reference materials open and within reach. And as Napier types away, her assistants can spread out materials for other projects on the leftover counter space.

Of course, some of Napier's most useful office innovations do come from technology. Her local area network saves her "tons of time," she says, by allowing her to work in bed on her networked laptop and by enabling her assistants to use the computer or printer in her husband's office while Napier works on her own computer. A flat-screen monitor acts as a "huge space saver," ensuring that there's ample room for both the fax machine and all of her writing resources.

Still, the bulk of Napier's "savings" -- be they in the realm of time or space -- come from the nontech aspects of her office.

Take, for instance, what she calls her "project box," a large rectangular unit that rests on the counter and is secured to the wall. Napier stores her various works in progress in the box's designated compartments. The whole setup looks like a library card catalog on steroids. Yet despite its width (39 inches) and height (64 inches), the entire box is only 16 inches deep, which leaves 20 inches of Formica work space in front of it. "That gives me even more room to spread out," she says.

Napier had the project box built five years ago, when she spent $5,000 converting her guest bedroom into an office. She hired a professional remodeler to design it, with the request that what she really needed was a "totally adjustable" storage space as part of the new office. Napier also wanted something that addressed the "body mechanics" of working on multiple projects while sitting in a computer chair, a wheelchair, or the hospital bed that she often requires after hospital stays. "I like to keep a lot of short stuff at arm's length," she says. By "short stuff," she means the stapler, Post-its, paper clips, and other doodads she likes having on a lower level of the box that's within easy reach.

Napier can configure the three-column project box into as many as 48 compartments, each four inches tall. Or she can have fewer compartments of larger sizes. Last fall, as she put the finishing touches on The Gift of Health (a book on nutrition for expectant mothers that she coauthored, which is due out this month) , she always knew precisely which compartment contained the materials she needed for different chapters in the book. The system makes it easy for her assistants to find things when Napier calls in from out of the office.

Her assistants will also know where to look if Napier calls to ask for "book number 11, with the red sticker, on the fourth shelf." That phraseology refers to Napier's system of cataloging the frequently consulted reference materials in her bookcases. Each shelf in each bookcase has a color code (red for weight loss, lime green for basic nutrition, orange for cytochemicals, dark green for basic health, and yellow for cookbooks) that represents the type of reference book that belongs on that shelf.

Napier numbers the books as well and orders them numerically, creating her own personal version of the Dewey decimal system. She asserts that "red number 11" is a whole lot easier and faster to say, comprehend, write down, and remember than a lengthy book title or an author's name. "People have to do things for me sometimes, and this makes it so much simpler," she says.

However, the color-coded level of organization also speaks a bit to Napier's persona -- the part of her that "loves neatness," the part of her she calls a "creature of habit."

Her organizational system had its genesis during a hospital stay eight years ago. Lying in bed and hooked up to oxygen, Napier took a call from her husband, who couldn't find the ketchup in the refrigerator. "That's how I first got the idea for my office," she says. Two things dawned on her because of the ketchup incident: First, she realized that she knew where everything in the refrigerator was without looking at it. Second, she figured that her husband might see the wisdom of her system for organizing things too if she could create a simple color-and-numbers scheme.

Napier stopped short of actually using the color-coded shelving system in her refrigerator. But when it comes to her office, she can easily guide her assistants and even her husband to find a book about, say, the nutritional value of ketchup. As for finding the actual condiment, Napier easily recalls the answer she gave her husband when he called the hospital eight years ago: "On the bottom shelf of the door, left side." Because that's where she still keeps the ketchup.

Ilan Mochari is a staff writer at Inc.

Napier's SOHO Essentials

  • Office: Gateway computer with flat monitor, $1,000. Laser printer, $1,700. Scanner, $800. Laptop for working in other rooms of the house, $2,500. Fax machine, $499. Two roller chairs, $150 each. Whiteboard, $20. Two bulletin boards, $20 each.
  • Networking: A local area network connecting the office to other would-be work spaces in the house, $1,600.
  • Telecom: A two-line phone, each line with call waiting and voice mail, and a third phone line for the fax, totaling $200 a month.
  • Internet: ISDN connection through a local ISP on a fourth phone line, $100 a month.
  • Outsourcing: Shipping and shopping (FedEx for the former and delivery services from local grocery stores for the latter).
  • Desktop: ICQ free instant-messaging service.

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