In-House Issues: In Defense Of Messy

I have a hookup in my car for my iPod that involves plugging in 2 wires – one for the audio out and another for electricity in. I’ve ritualized my routine for getting out of my car and it includes carefully detaching and winding up the two aforementioned cords. I then place them neatly in a compartment under the dash. When I get back in my car I unroll the wires and plug them into the car stereo and the iPod all over again. What the hell!!?? No one was in the car while I was gone, the process takes time, and the cords are cracking from having been wound and unwound hundreds of times. Why don’t I just leave the wires alone? Because I’m a hopeless obsessive compulsive and I bet many of you are too. I figure if Michael Bierut can come clean about his obsessive hand washing (excuse the pun) and running schedule during a past HOW presentation I can fess up too.

There are many instances where a little anal-retentivity is a good thing; such as when you’re organizing and planning for logistically information intensive and complex design projects. But as my admission above demonstrates, there are plenty of times when OCD is not the most productive or appropriate behavior. Add to that the fact that corporate culture values and even mandates neatness and organization and you end up with designers who may become paralyzed by organizational overload when attempting to come up with creative and innovative solutions to their projects or business initiatives.

The solution? When handed a challenging or real creative opportunity – get messy. Mix it up. Untuck your mental shirt and roll up your sleeves, stick your hands in the creative right-brained mud hole and start squishing, squeezing and mucking around in a virtual playground of ideas. It can get scary, especially if there are tight deadlines, clients walking around your cubes and an HR manual that rigidly documents proper office etiquette. The fear of starting down a path without knowing exactly where you’re going or how you’ll get there can render even the most courageous creatives impotent. But messy could very well be the most appropriate and effective action to take.

Messy limbers up the mind. Messy gets a lot of ideas out there. Messy exponentially ups the odds of making powerful connections and hybrid ideas much greater than the sum of the parts. I once heard a great quote at a conference that I love to repeat, “Write drunk, edit sober.” or to rephrase for us designers, “Ideate drunk, design sober.” A quick note – you can set your team up to mitigate the downside of messy by having project coordinators rein in all the messy creatives and keep them honest in pursuing their creative projects with a semblance of responsibility and decorum. At Designer Greetings where I work I have an excellent partner, Michelle, who exerts a much needed organizing influence on my inherent messiness.

Messy can also be applied to the development of group or project management processes and procedures by implementing those processes and procedures even before they are fully defined. As risky as this may sound, if managed skillfully, this practice allows for an organic evolution of processes resulting in SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) that are truly in tune with the group’s functional needs.

There’s a big caveat to the messy paradigm. For it to be effective we must be present to what’s really going on as the process, whether it be design or business related, unfolds. Operating on autopilot and playing a prescribed role just won’t cut it. We need to dance with the situation as it plays out by looking at what’s occurring as objectively as possible and applying intellect, instinct, intuition and good judgment to arising challenges and unexpected results and opportunities. This is completely antithetical to the usual corporate mindset of planning for predetermined outcomes, consistency and rigidly standardized roles and responsibilities making the messy model doubly difficult to implement.

When you get good at messy you can become a messy evangelist within your company (make sure to have some decidedly organized case studies before embarking on this adventure). Proselytize how the practice of messy and its resulting benefits can be applied not only to the creation of marketing or other design related deliverables but also to the formation of corporate strategies and initiatives and organization-wide policies, processes and procedures. Offer to assist in facilitating these types of meetings. You may even end up taking on a more strategic role within your company.

Oh, and by the way, in addition to greatly enhancing the creative and organizational processes, messy is fun too. As much as your corporate culture may balk – we all know there’s nothing wrong with that.

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