Messy Desks Make People Creative

Everyone that I know who has a messy desk claims that it’s a sign of creativity. I have to admit, I’ve been skeptical…it just sounds like a convenient excuse. Well, if you need an excuse for your messy desk, you will love this new scientific study from the University of Minnesota*, because it finds that a cluttered office made experimental subjects more creativity.

The researchers created two offices to use in the first experiment. One was extremely tidy and organized, and the other was unusually cluttered. (If you can get access to the online article, the photos of the offices are fascinating. The orderly office looks like no one works in there, like a furniture showroom. The disorderly office looks like every office I’ve ever seen, including my own.) Then, undergraduate students were randomly assigned to spend about ten minutes in one of the two fake offices. They sat at a desk and filled out questionnaires that were unrelated to the study. After ten minutes, they were told they could leave, and they were offered either an apple or a chocolate bar. The students who sat in the clean and tidy office were twice as likely to choose the apple! They also chose to donate more money.

So the researchers kept going, and decided to evaluate creativity. The students randomly were assigned to work in one of two conference rooms, but instead of filling out a questionnaire, they were asked to come up with new uses for Ping-Pong balls. (The photos here are hilarious–the messy conference room has papers scattered on the floor, and every square inch of table space is covered with random papers.) All of the ideas were judged by two independent raters for their creativity. The students in the messy offices generated more creative ideas.

One final test, adults were brought in to work at one of two desk spaces. (Again the photos are really funny. The disorderly space has about 20 pens and pencils lying on the floor, among other messy things.) The participants were given a choice of adding a healthy boost to their lunchtime smoothie, either the “classic” or the “new”. Those who had spent time in the messy space were much more likely to choose the “new” one. The researchers argued that this means the disorderly environment led people to break free from tradition, to be more open to new things. (On the other hand, it could lead you to eat way too many chocolate bars!)

Surely some of these participants must have wondered why the researchers were such slobs? Or, did they blame the subject who was in the room just before them? Maybe just trying to come up with an explanation for such a messy space is enough to stimulate creative juices.

*Vohs et al., 2013. Physical order produces healthy choices, generosity, and conventionality, whereas disorder produces creativity. Psychological Science, 24(9), 1860-1867.

7 thoughts on “Messy Desks Make People Creative

  1. Keith, what a fascinating study, especially as many environments designed to stimulate creativity are modern and artsy, rather than messy. I’m thinking about some creative agencies and high tech campuses, like Microsoft. that I’ve visited. It would be interesting to see how people who work in creative roles manage their PC desktops. When I’m working onsite at a client’s office, I always have too many tabs and windows open. My virtual desktop is a perpetual mess. Do you think it is a similar situation?

    1. I actually try to be really organized. Certainly my desk is more organized than the photos in this scientific article! I am a big fan of manila folders and file cabinets (I have about 24 full drawers worth of files). Perhaps there is a difference between “physical clutter” (as in the photos) and “conceptual clutter” (as in, confusing ideas and concepts with each other).

      1. Yep, great post. I’m kinda messy as well, physical desktop. I believe there is a difference between the physical and mental, at least that’s my logical hope…

  2. Hi Keith, there are some great findings in this! Indeed a fascinating study.

    This is my quick conclusion:
    1. Customers should only see the orderly facade of a company because they’ll be spending more money
    2. But if you want them to try new products, there should be a messy zone in their shopping experience.

    It would also be interesting to see how the orderly vs. the messy would relate when you move from one to another. Would it help to alternate the two? And in what frequency and length? And would it improve the creativity?

    Many lines of thought pop up when I read this… Thanks for sharing.

  3. Two things come to my mind. Firstly, creativity needs a considerable amount of stimulation. A messy workspace provides all sorts of it, perhaps leading to those “happy accidents” when some random bit of clutter might give the creative mind just the stimulus it needs to come up with a novel idea.

    Secondly, orderly, sterile workspaces conjure up the saying, “Out of sight, out of mind,” for me. Putting something in manilla folders – or worse, filing cabinets – is a sure sign that that project has reached the end of its life with me, whether finished or not.

    That having been said, once it’s time to get down to brass tacks and get a project done, then I need to clean up the mess, put it somewhat neatly aside, and concentrate singularly on the most urgent task at hand.


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