How Does Clutter Encourage Creativity?

How Does Clutter Encourage Creativity?
4 minutes read. April 8th, 2020.

A Fine Mess

Many would say that a clear workspace brings focus, clarity and structure (indeed, cleaning one’s desk is often one of the top tips for overcoming creative block). A lack of distractions allows the mind to concentrate fully on the task at hand. Put simply, the argument is: if your desk is littered with random artefacts, then you can’t focus. Anxiety sets in, which means creativity simply cannot flow.

Or can it? Cluttered desk advocates argue that an environment devoid of character is unlikely to inspire creativity. They argue firmly against the ‘mess creates stress’ brigade, claiming that orderly environments fail to fire up the creative brain adequately, resulting in ideas that play things safe and fail to break new ground.

It’s all a matter of creative approach. In order to think outside the box and create something truly original, the mind needs to wander and form mental links between things that might not usually connect with one another. It’s those random connections that can often lead to a creative spark, hence the belief that a cluttered environment is what is needed for us to reach our true creative potential.

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” – Albert Einstein

A Recent Study

Kathleen D. Vohs, Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota, carried out a study to test whether messier environments led to increased creativity levels. The study set out to prove Vohs’ theory that “...being around messiness would lead people away from convention, in favour of new directions.”

48 research subjects were each assigned one of two rooms: tidy or messy. The subjects were asked to imagine a ping-pong ball factory needed new ideas for the uses of ping-pong balls. Ideas were judged according to how creative they were, with the least innovative responses including using the balls for beer pong. Examples of more creative solutions included using the balls as ice cube trays, as well as attaching them to chair legs to protect floors.

Both rooms came up with an almost equal number of ideas, but the subjects from the messy room were recorded as having dreamt up more creative solutions to the problem – 28% more creative, to be precise. Occupants of the messy room also thought up nearly 5 times as many ‘creative’ responses as those in the tidy room.

Discussing the results of her findings, Vohs said: "There's a multibillion-dollar industry to help people declutter their lives. Relationship partners, employers, everyone wants you to be neat. But there may be times being messy is good, too. I think messy people feel vindicated big time."

The problem with clutter is that, as Vohs implies, it’s generally viewed in a negative light. Magazines, television shows and online articles all tend to promote decluttered lifestyles as the aspirational end goal. Similarly, most modern office environments are all about clean desks, as much for perceived clarity of thought as for corporate image. But what might this mean for those who buy into the ‘cluttered = creative’ equation? If, for fear of being labelled as messy, people feel pressured into maintaining a clear workspace, how detrimental could that be for creativity levels?


So, if cleanliness is next to godliness, is messiness next to… creativeness?

The correct answer, of course, is whatever works for the individual. Be it a messy desk, a minimalist’s paradise or a healthy blend of the two, it’s well worth the experimentation to find out what best suits your creative approach. And if working in complete cluttered chaos really is your preferred option, try not to see going against the grain as such a bad thing – to create something original requires us to break from convention too.

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How Does Clutter Encourage Creativity?

Paul Hough

Creative Director

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