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Beauty in chaos: Why more companies should embrace mess in the workplace

A clean, aesthetically pleasing workplace may not be best for creativity and productivity, acclaimed economist-turned-journalist Tim Harford says. Instead, he reckons a bit of disorder in the office can be beneficial. But how messy is too messy?

When picturing the ideal workplace, often people conjure up an image of a sleek, clean office with the bare minimum visible on their desks.

Mess is rarely a desired attribute of a workplace – in fact, some workplaces even set rules around how many photo frames and personal items are featured on a desk to avoid any form of clutter altogether.

But Harford, the best-selling author of The Undercover Economist, says a bit of disorder is far more beneficial for the human psyche.

His latest book, Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World, argues people’s overwhelming urge to tidy environments around them and have everything in a straight, orderly fashion can harm creativity.

He sums it up succinctly as such in the book: “we are so seduced by the blandishments of tidiness that we fail to appreciate the virtues of the messy — the untidy, unquantified, uncoordinated, improvised, imperfect, incoherent, crude, cluttered, random, ambiguous, vague, difficult, diverse or even dirty”.

In regards to the office specifically, he says the ideal fit-out perhaps isn’t the coolest or the most aesthetically visionary – it’s one that employees make their own with their tacky belongings – dog pictures, gnomes and the like.

“So how should the ideal office look? In the most prestigious offices at the most prestigious companies, the ones which are being photographed by Wired, the answer to that question is: this place should look the way the boss’s pet architect wants it to look,” Harford says.

He says Google’s early offices and other start-up’s creative spaces worldwide show how an office looks doesn’t matter. Trying to maintain a certain aesthetic can be stifling, while creativity can spring forth from piles of paper and food wrappers on a desk.

There is a limit to how muddled mess can get before it stops being is conductive to work, of course.

Corporate companies will find it far harder to get away with chaotic surroundings than their creative or start-up counterparts, while a desk that resembles a rubbish tip won’t be useful to anyone.

As part of a feature in the next issue of Idealog on the architecture of productivity, we chatted with Harford about how to embrace constructive mess in the workplace.

It could be argued that start-ups and creative companies can embrace mess and chaos more easily, but when it comes to corporates, there’s a desire for orderliness and control. How do these companies tread the balance between uniformity and personalisation? Are there any architectural or design trends that allow them to do that, or does it go against their nature?

I think the easiest opportunity here is to laissez-faire: I don't necessarily expect my employer to supply me with a bean bag or a standing desk, or my personal choice of computer, just because that's what suits me. But if I bring my own beanbag or computer in to work it would be great if my employer would at least try accommodate that. The most striking idiocies I've found in Messy are employers who go to enormous lengths to force employees to maintain arbitrary and pointless clean-desk standards at the cost of tremendous resentment. I don't expect my employer to be curating contemporary art in the workplace; but if I have my own artistic tendencies I need them to not go nuts.

How does this concept of messiness and breaking the rules tie in with workplace trends such as hot desking and working remotely from home? Do these variations on the workplace help or hinder tapping into this side of ourselves? 

Control matters a lot. Personally, I hot-desk all the time: I work from home, the train, different libraries (I live in Oxford, so I'm tremendously lucky in that regard), two different open-plan offices (the BBC and the Financial Times) and coffee shops all over London. It works brilliantly for me, but the point is that I get to decide where I work, and to pick the space that suits me - silent or busy, alone or with colleagues. Of course not every job could ever allow that amount of freedom, but many conventional office jobs could allow their workers more choice about their work environment. 

From what you’re saying in your What Makes a Perfect Office column, a lot of workplace design hasn’t been led from an intuitive feeling on what works, but purely on what looks good – therefore, even if a company has an office fitted out with the latest, greatest design thinking in mind, it might not necessarily facilitate more productivity and creativity. Do you think how a workplace looks aesthetically truly doesn’t matter? And in your opinion, if a company was wanting to undergo a new fit-out for their office, should the thinking behind it be led by the workers rather than the top down? 
 

Aesthetics definitely matter - but not in the way that many people think. I interviewed the great Stewart Brand for my book - one of the great Silicon Valley pioneers, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, and author of How Buildings Learn. Brand argues that "low road" buildings - cheap, disposable, ugly - are tremendously productive because they're cheap, disposable and ugly. People can hack them around, modify them, trash them - they're sandpits for freedom and creative behaviour. I like a beautiful space as much as anyone but I think when we're designing these spaces, we rarely appreciate how oppressive they can become because we're terrified of spoiling the beauty. And yes - of course any workplace should be designed with the deep involvement of the people who work in it. How could anyone think otherwise?

Find out more about Harford’s book Messy  on his website, and keep an eye out for our Architecture of productivity feature in the upcoming design issue of Idealog.