Cluttered desk, creative mind

-August 09, 2013

If you believe a recent study from the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, engineers (and this editor) are creative geniuses.

The school reported this week on a study regarding cluttered workspaces.

The findings have been published in the journal Psychological Science and, not surprisingly, showed that people with disorganized workspaces tend to be more creative thinkers. I say not surprisingly because analog great Bob Pease’s desk was so messy EDN devoted a video tribute to it upon Bob’s passing.

In short, study subjects were asked to perform tasks in either tidy or cluttered settings. First, they answered a survey, then were asked to contribute to a charity, and were also offered an apple or a chocolate bar.

According to the school, participants in the neater rooms overwhelmingly opted to donate and selected the apple option (what society tells us would be the “right” thing to do, given the options), while subjects from the messier rooms were less willing to donate, and more likely to choose the candy bar.

"A lot of our behavior conforms to what we think other people want us to do," said Joe Redden, an assistant professor at the school. "If an environment is clean and professional, we feel we should act that way. And if it's more relaxed and carefree, we can let ourselves go a little bit."

So the neater rooms pushed people to conform to the more socially acceptable behaviors while people in the messier rooms thought for themselves, less willing to conform like cubical borgs.

Engineers, we know, may work in cubes but they are not borgs. You all have some of the messiest desks on the planet and are some of the most creative people on the planet, which somewhat proves the school’s research.

As I’ve stated before on EDN, I’m not an engineer myself, just someone who appreciates engineering. And while I’ve see “organized” show up on HR report after HR report regarding my performance over the years at EDN, the truth is that while my output may appear tidy and organized, I’m far from it. Chaos is my organization.

Given the study and my hope that you’ll send in photos of your own chaotically creative workspaces, here are a few shots of my own creative space.

Here’s the overall main workspace, where I sit typing now. Note the mess of cords below, artwork from my toddler taped to the display I never plug in, and the tall pile of paperwork.

Here’s a close up of the area in use when I’m on a phone interview. Even though I have multiple devices with address books, plus a Rolodex in the closet, I keep tabs on contacts with good old business cards I am handed at events like Design West (cards are in the pictured show pouch). Also note my old-school tape recorder. I can no longer find cassettes in local stores and have to order them online.

And I reuse those special order cassettes until they snap. Note the handful on top of a pile of CDs, next to the clothes pins and under the Hot Wheels Back to the Future Delorean. There’s also a minicassette recorder that I ripped the top off of when a tape snagged and the digital recorder that I now reluctantly use when interviewing in person. Offering more proof that my home office is a place where old media goes to die is my iPhone, charging in its 90-minute mock-cassette case.

I actually have two desks; here’s the second. It’s home to my old iPod and ear buds, my iPad, stationary from a magazine I worked at last millennium, and Star Wars themed pancake molds, in case of a sci-fi breakfast emergency (everyone keeps these on their desks, right?).

So, given the disorderly state of my desk and its related out-of-the-box thinking, I’ll sit back and relax as I wait for the genius (and your own photos) to come in.

Send photos of your own creative mess via email. And share your thoughts on the study’s main finding – that cluttered desks signal more creative minds – below.

Also see:
Video goodbye to Bob Pease's office

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