Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

A Clean Desk

A Clean Desk
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Early this month, my colleague Brian posted some thoughts on Facebook. The one that piqued my attention read: “To my design students: If the firm that wants to hire you has a ‘clean desk’ policy, that’s also a pretty damn good indication to…RUN.”

Upon reading that, I choked a little.

Before I follow through on this thought, I’d like to present two disclaimers: First, Brian is one of the more interesting folks I’ve met, and I don’t mean this post as a personal attack. Second, I generally feel his thinking on this topic to be sound and sensible. Ultimately, he espouses giving staff the option to work in whichever way best suits them. There’s little wrong with that.

To be honest, my argument isn’t really about how clean one’s desk is. (At smashLAB we try to keep our spaces tidy, but don’t have a policy around it—for what it’s worth.) My challenge is more with the notion that there’s a single “right” way for creatives to work.

The Myths

There are some differences between new designers and practicing ones. The most outwardly visible is how these individuals present themselves. While those in the first group tend to look like designers, those in the second are harder to pick out from a crowd. In my mind this all relates to confidence and practicality. The more confident you become, the less you need to rely on a uniform; meanwhile, once you start having kids, it’s a lot more difficult to justify the purchase of $350 jeans (upon which spit-up looks almost the same as a $70 pair). In spite of looking less like “designers,” those who have some applied practice tend to be better at their jobs than those without.

Still, we creatives are reluctant to drop the markers that help identify us and our chosen vocation. From our Macs and Moleskines, to our sneakers and endless mockery of Comic Sans, many of us are guilty of becoming self-perpetuating caricatures. This extends beyond our props, and right through to the way many of us practice our craft. For example, I’ve met some designers who believe their work must be solely visual in nature, or they’ll somehow lose their “designer mojo.”

A number of myths around creativity are simply hardwired into our culture. In no particular order: The belief that designers are sensitive prima donnas whose needs must be catered to; The idea that “eureka” moments come only after great toil; The belief that you need to create a mess in order to pull out a gem; The perception that ideas occur as a result of random, chaotic action, and are only impeded by rational, clear-headed examination and planning.

“Let’s Hang Out in the Play Room!”

The problem with all of this is that a great deal of it isn’t accurate—particularly when it comes to design. Most designers I know are normal, sensible folks who like to solve problems. I think a lot of us start to find that our insights don’t come from within, but rather are the result of truly understanding a problem. Many appear to gravitate towards increasingly methodical ways of working, and documenting, their processes. And, with time, even their experiments become less random.

I don’t think designers are solely to blame for the misconceptions surrounding their profession. Such beliefs are also perpetuated by those who just don’t get what blows our hair back. @shelkie and I experienced this ourselves a few years ago. A firm we admire was looking to acquire a group with digital expertise. We weren’t up for that, but we were open to partnering. On one occasion, they invited us to their space; it wasn’t until we arrived that we learned this was in an attempt to “woo” us. They showed us around, and talked about a number of good things they were doing. Then they showed us the “play room” in which designers could read magazines, play games, share ideas, or just hang out.

Over the couple of lunches that followed, it became increasingly clear how they pictured us. They seemed to think of us as kids who needed to be pandered to, in order for them to gain access to our “talent.” This meant a play room, time for side-projects, and all kinds of (probably wonderful) perks. They couldn’t have been more wrong, though. We don’t do this stuff for the benefits; we do it because we like solving problems. We don’t need a fun room or toys, we need big fat juicy challenges that we can sink our teeth into. And we don’t play games. We’re excited enough about the work we do, to not feel compelled to find other distractions.

I think we left those two nice corporate dudes a little perplexed. They said all the things they probably thought they were supposed to say, to us “creative types.” If only they would have talked about some actual business, we might have gotten somewhere.

How We Hire

I recognize that this example is largely biased to the personalities of my business partner and me. In my experience though, this isn’t a great stretch from what most other designers seem to desire. Would they take a nice workplace over a crappy one? Sure. Would they say no to some kind of playful team building activity? Probably not. Almost every good designer I’ve met has been driven by something different, though: the opportunity to create really good work.

So, our staff recruitment approach is somewhat different. While our space is nice, benefits OK, and working hours reasonable, little of that is in our “pitch.” Instead, we tell potential hires to think carefully about whether they really want to work here. We remind them that we’re fiercely pragmatic, and that every decision made will need to have clear thinking behind it. We tell them that we’ll push them harder than anywhere else to do their very best work. We explain that we’re often rather blunt, but that there’s nothing personal in any of this: we just want to build the very best work we can.

Surprisingly, this works very well. Yes, a few fall off quickly. Fair enough, this isn’t for everyone, and some just can’t cope. Most, however, rise to the challenge. What’s interesting is that our rather rigorous manner of working goes from being seen as a nuisance, to becoming what our staff expects and demands. Part of this is because our structure and rigor isn’t about us exerting some kind of control; it’s about sharing a set of mutually-beneficial standards.

We Like Order

Once you start to grow, you simply can’t get away with the stuff you did as a one or two person shop. Scaling up your operation quickly exposes your weaknesses and makes you vulnerable. You start to lose things in the shuffle. Critical changes to projects don’t happen. Clients don’t get the response times you once promised. Precious time is lost because files are built poorly. All of a sudden, you find yourself working twice as hard as before, and still people are pissed off.

At smashLAB, we see professionalism as a baseline. We, in part, maintain this by putting a great deal of time into our systems and methodology, which are all focused on keeping us working together well. A lot of this would seem like minutiae to outsiders, for example: methodical file naming and organization, maintaining consistent standards for client-facing documentation, and clearly outlining weekly goals and individualized daily tasks (to name a few).

Although it may sound a little rigid at first, no one here really seems to mind. In fact, there isn’t a lot of stress or panic here on a day-to-day basis. In my mind, that’s because of how well this approach works. Everyone here knows what’s expected of them, and is encouraged to challenge policies and procedures that don’t hold water. It has taken a long time to get these methods to really work for us. Now that they do, the benefits are increasingly clear. By embracing this approach, we are increasingly efficient and can explore more ideas. We are able to better collaborate as a team and our interpersonal relationships are solid. Meanwhile, we are highly accountable to our clients and really seem to have their trust.

The office I worked in prior to smashLAB was a complete and utter mess. Union and management relations were highly toxic, power was abused, and people generally hated coming into work. As a result, I was committed to creating a company that wasn’t anything like that. So, I tried to do things as differently as possible from my last place of employment. Turns out, this was like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Eventually, I learned that order, hierarchy, systems, structure, and the like, aren’t the problem. In fact, these are critical things you can’t ignore. The trick is to implement them in a fashion that helps people do their best, instead of allowing things to become oppressive. What works at smashLAB is that we have all the order we need to work together well, and the freedom to speak our minds.

The Way It Used To Be

I suppose I’ve taken a bit of a tangent here. The reason I do so is to underscore why we’ve become so focused on the way in which we work. We didn’t start out with the notion of doing things in this way, but I am awfully happy that we arrived at this point. Doing so affords us the confidence to make certain promises to our clients that I don’t think we could otherwise.

Getting back to that clean desk, though, I again have to say that my problem isn’t really with the desk. It was with the idea that having such a policy was a marker of a somehow inferior or oppressive organization, and that there’s a single way creative companies should be.

For the record, I don’t expect you to work the way smashLAB does. You may like messy desks, or a play room, or to allow everyone in your agency to work however they please. That’s between you, your people, and your clients. Our approach works for us, and I can’t definitively say that it is transferrable to other operations.

All the while, I think we (designers) are more fearful of things that are different, than is necessary. Further, I sometimes feel there’s a tyranny of “sameness” at work in our industry. I argue that by nature of our vocation, it’s our responsibility to challenge such ideas. What if we work more efficiently by sharing a collective “playbook”? What if a PC is in fact a better design tool than a Mac? What if every designer on staff needs to write, instead of just deferring to a copywriter? What if a clean and ordered workspace simply makes it easier to find your stuff?

As our industry matures, I have to ask if it’s time to challenge “the way it always was” or “the way other successful firms seem to do it.” If we’re truly as creative as we claim, we should consider any option viable, and any practice open to challenging, in the interests of doing what we do, better.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Personally I'm messy but also less effective in messy environments. I've found disciplining myself to keep a baseline standard of orderliness makes the work both go faster and keeps my stress level down.

  2. I think to many of us at one moment or another, may feel that desk & brain activities "are a mess", rarely for myself.
    But I can't say never. I use the cleaning and reorganizing process as moments of regeneration be it mental or physical.
    As long as visiting clients, colleagues and myself see any of this as organized process, I feel satisfied.
    Eric, I know the lovely building home to "smashLAB". Now, I really would love to come and meet you at any opportunity?

  3. Sure--drop a line and we can arrange a time.

  4. Jan Byorkman says:

    Common sense and what used to be called a "job jacket" where project activities /status was logged never infringed on creativity but done poorly effected the bottom line and client expectations.

    You can be "messy" in your own space as long as you follow an organized protocol that keeps the project on track.

  5. Catherine says:

    On 'The Myths'... Except for Moleskins (which I acquired long after they were considered 'the' item for designers to have), I've merely watched the western design culture from the sidelines. I mean face it, black turtlenecks would look totally daft in the tropics.

    On being organised... Dunno. I've always believed that running a successful business (any business) involves organisation to the point of being anal.

    I can never figure out how my husband is comfortable working in his disaster of an office. He either finds stuff (spending a lot of time to locate it), gets (or recreates) new stuff to replace what he can't find, or does without. I can't work like that. I need order. And the older I get (with a memory lagging behind) makes that need even more true.

    But really, it's all down to personality types. Black turtlenecks or not. Messy desks or not. Loads of sanuk (fun) or not. Up to you...

  6. Eric, Another thoughtful piece. I too am of the school of "organization"; while I love the flexible hours and dress code where I work now, it drives me batty that everyone is allowed to set up their files and write their code however they want, meaning that it is nigh impossible to ever pick up on anyone else's work if need be. Setting up some naming conventions and coding standards is not some authoritarian plot: It's simply a way to work efficiently and productively with others!

  7. The clean/messy desk discussion for designers often misses that you are designing for a client. If that client visits then they want to see a hive of activity, but they also don't want to see a dorm room.

    Your office is a theater stage. A few design magazines and job bags are part of the props. But anything more is just junk that makes you look unprofessional.

  8. Ginger Conlon says:

    My desk is spotless. Actually, probably a bit too much so. OK, defnitely--phone, computer, and only the papers related to what I'm currently working on. When our firm recently moved offices, someone suggested that everyone take a page my from my "sparse" book. No! I agree that there must be order and process, and neatness/professionalism in your personal workspace. But there must also be some reflection of who you are in that it helps you be more effective. Like you said, there's needs to be flexibility to allow people to work in the way they work best. I'm neat because I function best that way. Other people like "stuff" around them. It may make them smile or inspire them or whatever. Let them have their stuff. Neatly.

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  10. Nicely put, Eric.

    I have a large desk. Half of it is impeccably clean. The other half is hopelessly cluttered... a bit like my mind.

  11. John Boland says:

    I think your statement that you view "professionalism as a baseline" says it all. If you work with that as your guide it doesn't matter what your desk looks like, but the odds are it will not be a mess.

  12. Spad says:

    personally I use the level of mess and clutter I work in as a visual guide to how much I'm overstretching myself. I know that when it gets too unruly its time for me to step back and something else for a short while. The tidying is also a great chance for refelction!

  13. I must agree that a lot of people believe that if they look the part, the work they produce will not be as important.

    I'm glad to hear that places exist where they really push their employees for quality, rational work completed on-time and with all standards met. That caliber of challenge is a real catalyst for excellent results.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

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  15. Gail says:

    I own a staffing and recruiting firm, so i have some basis for my statements. Recruitment is a fickle thing. what is the gospel at one office is blasphemous at the Next. Good companies will do whatever it takes to maintain their culture. As an applicant, you may need a job... but pay attention to the culture and make sure you fit too... clean desks or dirty desks.

  16. My dental office is clean, but if you go in the backroom.. watch out! I don't believe there is a connection between desks and work ability or ethics.

  17. A clean desk is my preference, only because I work with clean and precise screens. A clean and tidy site that's easy to read sells more, a clean and tidy desk (and I'm not advocating complete emptiness!) helps sell yourself.

    Thta's my tuppence worth anyway!

  18. James says:

    Well conceived design projects always adhere to some sort of established process. They key to making a profit in this business is the internal organization of your business - without it you just piss money down the drain running around in mayhem that is somehow deemed "creativity". I couldn't agree more with your perspective.

    Outstanding as always and really one of the best design / brand / blogs online. Always look forward to reading your take on things.


  19. Rick says:

    The corporation with the "playroom" must have mistaken you for programmers. Because those are exactly the kind of "perks" we developers need as a counterbalance for the purely abstract mental activity yet equally creative job of programming.

  20. Nora Reed says:

    This is really a nice article, this would be very useful to me as a freelancer. thanks for this nice share.

  21. Susan says:

    John Boland says:
    I think your statement that you view "professionalism as a baseline" says it all. If you work with that as your guide it doesn't matter what your desk looks like, but the odds are it will not be a mess.

    agree with @ John Boland

  22. Walt D says:

    I think the twofold approach works best in the sense of keeping your work space organized for easy access of items and yet still portray the appearance of being busy.

  23. J says:

    Seems to me that a mandatory clean desk policy actually reinforces the idea of there only being a single right way for one to work, without respecting that some can perform better in a slightly different way, and still adhere to your organization as a whole. I did enjoy the post and insights into smashLABs process.

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