What A Beautiful Mess
“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
– Albert Einstein
I recently stumbled into this vintage photo of Albert Einstein’s desk along with the above quote. In addition to serving as a fascinating glimpse into the working life of a genius, it provided me with a little vindication as to the seemingly chaotic condition of own desk on any given day.
My clients, who come to me for clean, elegant design, might be a little shocked by the mess, but a recent study from the University of Minnesota’s Carson School of Management suggests that I may be on to something. The study had some subjects perform prescribed tasks in a messy environment, while others were asked to carry out those same tasks in a clean uncluttered space.
With some of the tasks – filling out questionnaires for example – participants in uncluttered environments fared better. But faced with more creative challenges, the messy-desk crowd came out way on top. The study clearly demonstrated that “participants in a disorderly room were more creative than participants in an orderly room.”
For lead researcher Kathleen Voh, these results suggest that the uncluttered space inspired an atmosphere of “convention and playing it safe,” while the more chaotic environments “inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights.”
Columbia Business School professor Eric Abrahamson points out that an obsession with neatness forces employees to devote valuable time to maintaining an orderly environment, time that might otherwise be spent on actual work.
“Creativity is spurred when things that we tend not to organize in the same category come together,” Abrahamson says. “When you allow some messiness into a system, new combinations can result.”
Now, please don’t get me wrong. As I tell clients all the time, cutting through the clutter we’re all forced to deal with every day can be hugely beneficial. Every now and then I do face the music and organize my desk, and it always feels good. There are benefits, both practical and spiritual, to that process as well. In fact, I recently started writing a blog on that very subject. I know it’s here somewhere, and when I find it you’ll be the first to know!