Messy desks and benign neglect allow ideas to grow

7th December, 2018

My daughter is about to receive a new desk, so in order to clear space for it we were obliged to hack our way through the undergrowth of a 12-year-old’s bedroom. We found a half-assembled jigsaw puzzle from last Christmas; three separate sets of worn pyjamas scrunched up and stored in diverse locations; and empty sweet wrappers from Halloween. More alarmingly, there were empty sweet wrappers from Easter.

I am trying my best to treat with equanimity the discovery of a novel ecosystem under my roof. This is because I have come to believe that many spaces work a great deal better if subjected to a sustained period of benign neglect.

Consider the office cubicle. Some people pile their desks with everything from old newspapers to unwashed mugs; others are fastidiously tidy. (I fluctuate.) I’m not saying that people with messy desks are more productive, although there’s some evidence that they are; I’m just saying that if your colleague is a messy-desker then he or she should be allowed to get on with it.

Support for this position comes from a study conducted by two psychologists, Alex Haslam and Craig Knight. A few years ago they set up simple office spaces in which they asked experimental subjects to spend an hour doing administrative tasks. Messrs Haslam and Knight wanted to understand what made people productive and happy, and they tested four arrangements in a randomised trial. One was minimalist: chair, desk, bare walls. A second was softened with tasteful prints and some greenery. Workers were happier there, and got more done.

The kicker comes with the third and fourth arrangements. In each case, workers were invited to rearrange the pictures and pot-plants as they wished before settling down to work. But while some were then left to their labours, others were second-guessed by an experimenter who stepped in and found a pretext to rearrange everything.

This, unsurprisingly, drove people mad. “I wanted to hit you,” one participant later admitted. Empowering people to lay out their own space led to happier, more productive workers. Stripped of that freedom, everyone’s productivity fell and some felt quite ill.

The principle of benign neglect may well operate on a larger scale. Consider Building 20, one of the most celebrated structures at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The product of wartime urgency, it was designed one afternoon in the spring of 1943, then hurriedly assembled out of plywood, breeze-blocks and asbestos. Fire regulations were waived in exchange for a promise that it would be pulled down within six months of the war’s end; in fact the building endured, dusty and uncomfortable, until 1998.

During that time, it played host not only to the radar researchers of Rad Lab (nine of whom won Nobel Prizes) but one of the first atomic clocks, one of the first particle accelerators, and one of the first anechoic chambers — possibly the one in which composer John Cage conceived 4’33. Noam Chomsky revolutionised linguistics there. Harold Edgerton took his high-speed photographs of bullets hitting apples. The Bose Corporation emerged from Building 20; so did computing powerhouse DEC; so did the hacker movement, via the Tech Model Railroad Club.

Building 20 was a success because it was cheap, ugly and confusing. Researchers and departments with status would be placed in sparkling new buildings or grand old ones — places where people would protest if you nailed something to a door. In Building 20, all the grimy start-ups were thrown in to jostle each other, and they didn’t think twice about nailing something to a door — or, for that matter, for taking out a couple of floors, as Jerrold Zacharias did when installing the atomic clock.

As Stewart Brand drily remarked in How Buildings Learn (UK) (US) Building 20 worked because “nobody cares what you do in there”.

If benign neglect works for your colleague’s desk and it works for an entire building, what about a grander scale still? What about a city neighbourhood? Up to a point, yes: even cities benefit from being left alone in certain ways. Of course, potholes must be fixed, bins emptied and charging points for electric vehicles installed. But Jane Jacobs argued in The Death And Life of Great American Cities (UK) (US) that cities desperately need old buildings, and not just glorious masterpieces but “a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings”.

Her reasoning: cities are always in need of new experiments and economically marginal activities. “Neighbourhood bars . . . good bookshops . . . studios, galleries . . . hundreds of ordinary enterprises” all need somewhere cheap.

There’s nothing wrong with new buildings, argued Ms Jacobs, frustratingly for those who hold her up as a Nimby icon. But they should not be built everywhere all at once. Something has to be neglected and run down, or the city has no soil from which new buds can shoot.

There is always a balance to be struck. Every old building was once new. Every desk needs the occasional wipe. And my daughter is currently engaged in an extended programme of supervised room-tidying. Yet neglect is undervalued. Sometimes we need to learn when to leave well alone.


The ideas in this column are more fully expressed in my book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World”. It’s available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.


Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 9 November 2018.

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