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Why Creative People's Desks are Complete Nightmares

Why Creative People's Desks are Complete Nightmares
I like messy desks and I cannot lie.

I see you with your snazzy Poppin set, your desk totally clear except for a laptop, notebook, your mug of Rooibos and that perfectly framed best-day-of-my-life wedding photo with you in your updo.

You know what I think when I see when I see a desk like that? You’re bad at your job. You must be. You’re too busy sorting everything into its site-specific lacquered box or worrying about colour-coordinating your paper clips with your scissors to actually concentrate on your work. (BTW, other than a primary teacher, what kind of job needs a set of scissors, anyway?)

Seriously, only a psychopath works like this.

And I know what people think when they see a desk like mine. I must be bad at my job. Irresponsible, late for deadlines, disorganized, and the mortal sin of being slovenly.

Wanna know what’s on my desk right now?

  1. 26’ monitor
  2. Laptop
  3. Printer
  4. Notebook
  5. An old fashioned teacher’s desk bell (I ring it when I have great ideas or something good happens)
  6. A lamp made out of a rotary phone my brother made.
  7. A purple stapler
  8. A tape dispenser shaped like a red high heel (gift from my in-laws but like the previous scissor comment, why do I need tape?)
  9. A pirate-skull magic 8-ball from a Happy Meal
  10. A picture my niece drew

  11. A set of googly-eyed glasses still in the package (you never know when you need a last minute gift)
  12. A box that my receipts are supposed to go in
  13. A pile of my receipts that are supposed to go in said box.
  14. Sepia photos of my grandmother as a child on the prairies during The Depression (I’m trying to write a book)
  15. File folders stuffed with drafts and creative briefs
  16. 2 cell phones
  17. A small stack of old notebooks that I use for reference (and to save my ass sometimes)
  18. A bag of dog treats.
  19. A miniature music box that plays ‘Edelweiss’ (who doesn’t love the Sound of Music?)
  20. A pair of reading glasses I wore when I dressed up as Sarah Palin for Halloween (you never know when my eyesight might go for realz)


And yes, I do feel that every single one of these items is necessary to my ability to do my job. Either that or I don’t care enough about the item to let it distract me from doing my job.

This is where the magic happens

Here’s what else I think when I see someone with absolutely nothing on their desk: you have someone else doing stuff for you. I once met a creative director at an agency where I was freelancing. When I walked into what I thought was a meeting room all that was on the white lacquered table was a large computer screen and a keyboard. No drawers, no stuff, not even a pen. It was all so white and clean I thought maybe I was about to be operated on and my organs sold for cash.

It wasn’t until after the meeting that I realized that this was actually the guy’s office. At first I thought, “Wowwwww, he must be so brilliant that he doesn’t want anything distracting him from the creative process.” Then I thought, wait a second, he’s got a chain of command under him to deal with all his stuff – account managers and art directors to manage all the contracts and creative briefs and and take drafts away until they’re perfect as well as a financial manager to dump all his receipts on and an office manager to deal with everything else. He has staff. He’s got people. And those people deal with his mess.

"I barely wipe my own ass."

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve worked with a lot of nice, clean-desk people. They’re very nice. They’re helpful. But in my experience they get very agitated and distracted if things get messy. The problem is the mess does not distract me; it’s the thought of cleaning up the mess that I find distracting. I am always so focused on the idea I’m chasing or the inspiration I’m searching for that the last thing I’m thinking about is whether “great idea” is filed under “G” or “I”.

One time I moved to a new city and was interviewing for jobs with a great reference from my former employer. I went back for a follow-up interview where I knew they were going to make me an offer. The CEO proceeded to tell me all the glowing things that my former employer had said in recommending me for the position. I smiled, feeling very confident and awesome.

Then he said, ”She also mentioned you have a very messy desk.” I felt like I was in elementary school and had just been sent to the corner for colouring outside the lines. The way he said it I thought for a minute that I wasn’t going to get the job. For having a messy desk. Obviously based on the comments my former employer made, a messy desk did not interfere with my ability to rock my job so I couldn’t understand why either of them felt the need to make this point.

Let’s just say this should tell you a lot about the work environment with my former employer and the one with my soon-to-be new employer.

I used to feel bad about being a messy desk person. Not any more. Not after I heard about this big study that DuPont did years ago looking for the traits that make up a creative person. The only two characteristics they could find in common among almost all creative people were 1) a good sense of humour 2) high tolerance for clutter. I was emboldened!

Then I recently read that Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain all had messy desks. And so do Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Tony Hsieh of Zappos, and Max Levchin of PayPal.

So while you’re alphabetizing your dog’s vet receipts, I’ll be over here working on the next big thing and, like messy Mark Zuckerberg, waiting for my giant IPO payoff.

PS I do really like those Poppin desk sets. If I just shove this pile of papers over slightly to the right, I just might be able to fit some of it in.

So, are you a messy or clean desk person? Feel like judging me for being a PigPen? Send me your comments!

author bio

About Jennifer Faulkner

Head of Content , muse for . Channeling Maria Von Trapp, Queen Elizabeth II, and my taxi-driving, yard-sale-obsessed grandmother. Professional word nerd and unapologetic disciple of the Oxford comma. Follow on Twitter

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