Messiness and creativity

My creativity is bustin' out all over

My creativity is bustin’ out all over (photo: Sandie Allen)

As the photo above suggests, this may be among the most self-justifying of blog posts: A short write-up of a recent study indicating that messiness may nurture creativity.

Marketing professor Kathleen D. Vohs (U. Minnesota) writes in Sunday’s New York Times about the results of a multi-layered study that she and her colleagues conducted:

Not long ago, two of my colleagues and I speculated that messiness, like tidiness, might serve a purpose. Since tidiness has been associated with upholding societal standards, we predicted that just being around tidiness would elicit a desire for convention. We also predicted the opposite: that being around messiness would lead people away from convention, in favor of new directions.

We conducted some experiments to test these intuitions, and as we reported in last month’s issue of the journal Psychological Science, our hunches were borne out.

I’ll let you read the full op-ed piece for a summary of how they conducted their experiments, but their bottom line is that messiness may enhance our creative impulses.

It follows that minimalist office designs, seemingly in vogue these days, may have unintended downsides:

At the same time, the working world is abuzz about cultivating innovation and creativity, endeavors that our findings suggest might be hampered by the minimalist movement. While cleaning up certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let inspiration flow.

It takes all kinds

Tongue-in-cheek aside, this is not a full-blooded case for messy work settings. Tidiness has its place.

Take, for example, the term “shipshape.” It refers to “meticulous order and neatness,” according to On a ship, everything should be in its place, and for good reason: Lives may depend upon it. If you step aboard a boat, and you see gear and gadgetry randomly strewn all around the deck, be worried, very worried. (Get back ashore, or jump if you must!)

Other work settings, however, present different priorities and purposes, and insisting that everything be shipshape could be detrimental to your ultimate goals. In fact, if we want to encourage creativity and innovation, perhaps our physical work environments might best reflect the very brainstorming occurring in our heads.

To bring it back to me: Yes, a lawyer’s case files should be organized and orderly. But maybe a law professor’s office can afford a few piles here and there (and everywhere).

10 responses

    • Fiona, you’re giving me too much credit. That’s *plant* as in singular. And it’s a resilient little sucker that for some 11 years has tolerated my erratic watering habits! (Don’t tell anyone at my work that I use the filtered water for it…)

      • It looks like a pothos. They (like other creative beings) seem to thrive on unpredictability! Maybe it has something to do with wise use of resources…

        And I would never confuse untidiness with disorganization or uncleanliness. A little clutter can lead to spontaneous re-organization.

  1. David, I really enjoyed your topic. It is so nice to see such a jubilant expression on your face. It brightens one’s day. Sharing our concerns, issues, as well as the joyful-more playful side of ourselves resonates a sense of wholesomeness to me.

    As for me, I do prefer a more orderly office area, still working on that, endeavor, wouldn’t you know. With a change in my job situation, I am exclusively utilizing my home office and making an attempt to consolidate and reorganize the paperwork.

    Once there is a sense of orderliness, I can, then, feel as though I have a stable launch pad, so to speak, from which to explore the more tangential topics that I find to be alluring. In the meantime, I am living in the muck and the mire, which as I understand it, can be quite earthy and wholesome, as well. (chuckle)

    Anyone, those are my fleeting thoughts on the subject.

    • JP, yes, we’re all different! Wildly different comfort levels with clutter, paper piles, etc.. When I enter a home or office I’ve never been to before, I’m actually more comfortable when I see piles of books and papers than when I see everything super neat. No doubt the people who keep tidy surroundings would feel the complete opposite being in my home or office!

  2. Hi, David –

    I love this. I’ve noticed that I tend to follow a pattern. My immediate surroundings seem to mirror what’s going on for me mentally and emotionally.

    It begins with a “Eureka!” moment, followed by intense curiosity and information gathering. All of this becomes very messy. Someone might look at my surroundings and think “How could anyone get anything accomplished in the middle of such a mess?!”

    Then, as I begin to formulate and structure my thoughts and ideas, my surroundings still look like a mess – but in my mind, it’s a mess with meaning.

    Finally, everything comes together and “the baby is born.” I’m worn out and my surroundings (and I!) may look like the aftermath of a tornado. After some rest and reorientation, the clean-up effort begins -in preparation for the next creative storm.

    Thanks, David.

  3. Sort of. . .except, if I head in that direction, then I worry that someone is going to look under the bed!

    It’s all about appearances and the extents we go to, to adhere to some perceived notion of “normalcy” – to appear like we’ve got everything under control.

    Part nurture, part nature.

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