Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Clutter and Creativity

                                   Nature is not Minimalist

If you immerse yourself in reading about the minimalist movement you will find statements everywhere you look claiming that clutter is linked to depression and anxiety, that clutter and mess are bad for us and in particular that they impair thinking, decision making and creativity.  The minimalist movement promotes itself as being counter-culture and daring because it requires saying no to the accumulation habit fostered by a consumerist culture, but a little digging can find people writing about the benefits of clutter. 

Not that there are many people touting the life changing benefits of mess and clutter, or the creativity inducing benefits of shopping, but there is also the view held by some that the truly creative among us prefer a bit of a mess.  Whether this is due to a stereotype of the true creative simply not having time to bother with such mundane things as tidying, or whether it’s a generalised concept of abundance, options and ideas being the basic sustenance of creativity, this perspective still persists and we have famous icons to point to in support of it.

Ironically, some of these icons are pointed to by both those espousing minimalism and those espousing creative mess and thus I will also point to them as examples of my own theory, which is that in all things there is usually an optimal middle road.  We look to the world of technology these days when looking for examples of creative geniuses which I confess saddens me a little but that’s quite likely my own luddite bias.   Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are both cited as people who  eschew the bother of having to put any thought into their clothing so as to free up their thinking for bigger and better things.  Steve Jobs was known for wearing a basic uniform of black turtlenecks and blue jeans, while Mark Zuckerberg usually wears a grey tee shirt and blue jeans.  On the other hand, a Google search shows  Jobs and Zuckerberg working at untidy and disorganised looking desks.  Albert Einstein and Mark Twain were two brilliant thinkers known for exceedingly messy work spaces and Einstein is often quoted or paraphrased in saying that “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, what, then, is an empty desk a sign of?” 

I can’t help but think that this is mainly an individual thing and that perhaps it’s not whether one’s space is clean or cluttered that matters so much as whether one’s space is suited to one’s own needs.  Yes, there are theories suggesting that clutter stimulates thinking as well as those which suggest that it inhibits thinking.  My own experience is that certain types of clutter drive me crazy and other types make me happy.  The greatest challenge is probably in trying to align the personal clutter parameters of all people sharing a space.  I have had to share work space with people significantly messier than I am and people whose need for sparse tidiness drove me equally crazy.  I have had people compliment me on my tidy and organised environment as well as comment on my cosy, eclectic spaces which I think is putting a positive spin on clutter.  I am not sure anyone is creative when working in someone else’s mess, but our own messes usually  make sense to us. 

I suspect it is fair to say that for most people anything that is unwanted, unneeded, unused or unloved feels like a burden and impediment.  Einstein’s desk may have been cluttered and messy but if everything on it was important to him the mess of it could easily be irrelevant.  While there are some forms of the minimalist movement that espouse living in a sparse environment, possessing very little and follow guidelines about ideal quantity or having a home where there is nothing on the floor except furniture legs and scarcely any of those either, there are also many people seeking the sweet spot of what is just enough.  The challenge is often in that they are doing this while sharing living space and possessions with other people, usually family members.  If the goal is to live with only what you want, need and enjoy, this could easily lead to an environment that does not look anything like what anyone would identify as minimalist because the lifestyle minimalist movement is not necessarily about the minimalist aesthetic. 

And creative mess might not require an abundance of anything not wanted, needed or enjoyed so it can be compatible with lifestyle minimalism.  If people can let go of needing to assert that their preferred way of doing things is the way which supports creativity and accept that there isn’t likely one best way, but rather a way that is best for the individual, then we can get on with being productive, creative, peaceful, content, whatever our goal is. 

The Personal Stuff

I want what I want and none of the rest.  That pretty much sums it up for me but where I differ from some people I know is in all of the rest being an irritant to me.  I dislike pointless clutter and unclean spaces so my creativity will be impaired if there is a pile of dirty dishes in the kitchen and the counters need wiping.  My bookcases are crammed and tend to overflowing because I love books.  My art space is tidy enough that I know where things are but I leave work in progress out where I can see it and usually my paints and brushes are out too.  However, I do need a free and clear space to work and dirty coffee cups littering the desk would irritate me.

Never enough book shelves....

The current state of my art space...

A Writing Place....

I write in various locations but often in bed.  My bedside table is usually cluttered though I frequently tidy it up a little bit.  Still, there are always books, notebooks and pens, a water glass, a dish of water for my cat and a coffee mug or a wine glass.  I don’t make the bed if I am spending most of the day lying on it writing, reading or doodling.

Sometimes I can ignore it for a short time but not always.  In a perfect world I would make messes while being creative and then tidy things up when done for the day but I would rather put all my energy into the creativity and have none left for the tidying.  Or better yet, I would be like one of those old-timey men who had a housekeeper to look after the rest of the house, keep them fed and the coffee cups washed but the housekeeper would be banned from touching my work-space otherwise.  Since I don't have a housekeeper, I try to find the balance between creative mess and mind-calming cleanliness.



  1. Very interesting debate! My grandmother who is an extremely tidy person (as were most ladies of that generation) always said that she didn't mind my often chaotic work desk. She said it is a sign of creativity. She made me clean the rest of the house daily (especially when I was staying at her home) and I always had to place/return everything at its proper place, but my work desk (or work corner) was always behind bounds. When I was younger, I used to make jewelry daily, so there were always unfinished necklaces and stuff but somehow that didn't bother her. When it came to things related to studying, painting or jewelry making, I was allowed to keep a messy corner for it and nobody ever made me tidy up my study desk.

    Your reflections about minimalism are very interesting. I feel very drawn to minimalism, but at the same time a completely minimalist home would feel very sterile to me. I suppose I need something old to make it feel more homely. I kept one antique piece that doesn't fit my new home at all. I thought it was because I couldn't bring myself to get rid of it, but now I think it is because I can't do complete minimalism.

    My bookshelves are not very organized either. I reach for books too often. I love vintage books, but I'm not a collector. I read old books the same way I do new ones. Sometimes I contemplate keeping some of my old editions better protected, but I just can't brings myself to lock up books and not use them.

    1. I also didn't realise at first that there was a difference between the minimalist aesthetic and the lifestyle philosophy so I just thought of minimalism as a sterile all white environment with modern furniture and a dash of black. My ideal home is similar to your Grandmother's I think. I want it cosy, tidy and clean but my work spaces will be creatively messy. I am stressed by the clutter of unwanted things but not by things I love. The point of lifestyle minimalism is to reduce or remove what you don't want and enjoy what you do. This can mean antique things, books or creative supplies. In some ways I wouldn't even bother to call that minimalism, just a sensible life. LOL I too find that personal items, older items and a bit of a display that says who you are is what makes a home special. I will be inclined to judge negatively someone with nothing personal on display or with such a minimal aesthetic that there is nothing telling a story. What the home says to me then is 'I am slick and shiny with no substance' or 'I am boring'. I know that's unfair of me to judge that way so I would be looking for the person to contradict what their home says. As someone who has gotten fed up trying to make her outfits say everything about her personality it would be unfair of me to expect other people's homes to do that for them. I am probably rambling at this point...so many ideas on this topic.


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