As an artist, you may work best when you can freely explore your creativity, regardless of the mess it generates. Or, you may prefer to keep everything neatly in its place. There are plenty of artists who prefer a messy art studio, while others thrive in well-organized spaces.
What do experts—and other artists—have to say about the pros and cons of a messy work space? Over the last several decades, researchers have looked closely at the relationship between the human brain and work space organization, positing different theories about how artist studio organization can foster creativity. If you’re establishing a work space for your art, Here’s a look into the case for both organized and messy art studios, and how to decide which will work best for you.
Pros to Having a Messy Art Studio
Research has shown that a messy art studio could lead to enhanced creativity. In a 2013 experiment, researcher Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota asked 48 people to think up novel uses for a ping pong ball. They put half of the participants in tidy, organized rooms and half in messy rooms. Those in neat rooms came up with typical responses (e.g., ping pong balls could be used for beer pong), while those in messy rooms ventured further outside the box (e.g., ping pong balls could be used as ice cube trays).
According to Vohs’s research, neat spaces encouraged safe and conventional thinking, while unkempt rooms spurred novel ideas. Ultimately, those in the messy rooms thought up five times as many highly creative responses as those in the neat rooms.
A messy art desk can also help you keep the tools you need to express your creativity at your fingertips.
“My studio is an artistic space, so it cannot be neat by nature,” photographer Marta Syrko explains. “I have a lot of stuff I can use during photoshoots, like mirrors, pieces of plastic and glass, lighting equipment, clothes, water, and even colorful sand,” she continues. “This chaos helps me to create, and it results in unusual and unique photoshoots.”
Famous People Who Had Messy Offices
Biographies of history’s great minds are filled with anecdotal evidence that cluttered desks and offices can indeed spark innovation. For the messy artist, an untidy work space can serve as inspiration and fuel.
At the time of figurative painter Francis Bacon’s death, his London studio was filled to the brim with more than 7,000 objects, ranging from canvases and books to paints and paper scraps. Bacon’s studio has been a subject of fascination for decades. “When we first looked at the studio, everything seemed to be thrown in a heap,” conservator Mary McGrath told Christie’s. “And then once we looked at it for a period of time, we realized that, in fact, there was a certain amount of order behind the chaos.”
In photographs, you’ll often see American writer Mark Twain’s desk littered with paper and books—yet he was arguably one of the most creative thinkers and writers of all time.
While Steve Jobs is known for creating technology with a minimalist design aesthetic, photos of his home office show that his desk was often cluttered and unorganized.
Pros for Minimalist Studios
Vohs and her colleagues might have concluded that a messy environment can prompt unconventional thinking, but they also found that neat and orderly rooms have benefits of their own. In a separate experiment, her team asked 34 participants to fill out a brief questionnaire. Half of them did so in a messy room, and half worked in a neat one.
When they were done, the researchers asked if the participants would like to contribute to charity. They also offered them the choice between an apple and a candy bar. The results? Those who’d worked in a neat room were more likely to donate to charity—and contributed more than twice as much. They were also more likely to opt for the apple, a healthier snack option.
These findings suggest that while a messy art studio might foster creativity, neatness encourages thoughtfulness. It could also boost generosity and improve well-being.
In 2015, professor Grace Chae from Temple University did her own research into the effects of clean work space, and she learned that participants who worked in tidy offices were more effective than those who didn’t. They were also more persistent.
When faced with an unsolvable problem, the subjects working at a neat desk spent one and a half times as long on the assignment before giving up when compared to their messy work space counterparts. Chae and her colleagues also posited another theory: When people try to do work in a self-imposed mess, it can become overwhelming and undermine their ability to get things done.
Famous People With Clean and Minimal Work Spaces
There are many creatives who choose to keep their creative spaces neat and organized—and in fact, say they can’t work effectively otherwise.
Ben the Illustrator
“I can’t work with an untidy desk,” says Ben the Illustrator. “I can’t work with distractions or clutter around me. I just want to feel freedom and clarity to think and create. I only really need a healthy mind to have a good idea, and the tidiness around me gives me the time and space to act on that idea, whether it involves drawing (pencil on paper) or working digitally.”
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg keeps just a few items on his desk, like a small stack of books. With a simple desk setup, he can focus on innovation and big ideas.
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Society typically values neat spaces and minimal lifestyles. But messy rooms also have advantages that aren’t discussed as often.
The answer to the question of whether artists thrive in messy or minimal spaces is simple: They thrive in both. So how do you decide which type of artist work space is best for you?
If you’re having trouble coming up with new ideas and taking risks, it might be time to immerse yourself in your messy bookshelves and storage files. But if you’re on a deadline for a client, it might be more helpful to declutter your studio. Messiness could help you brainstorm, while orderliness could help you problem-solve quickly and efficiently.
Last Words of Advice
To be a successful artist, you don’t necessarily have to choose between messy and neat. Illustrator Rebecca Hendin, for instance, strikes a delicate balance between the two. She surrounds herself with inspiring objects, but she keeps everything organized according to her own system. “My studio is neat, but full,” she explains. “I collect odds and ends and trinkets, so it’s filled with the things I like: plants, skulls, figurines, books, old clocks, old brass casts—you know, the usual.
“But it’s always clean and ordered. I don’t thrive in any messy or dirty place in any walk of life, but empty spaces also don’t work for me creatively as they don’t match the semi-organized chaos in my head. In a way, my studio resembles my art: busy, detailed, and ful—but everything in a thought out, considered, and balanced place.”
Artists who thrive are able to identify the type of work space that helps them create their best work—whether it’s a well-organized space or a messy art desk. The most important thing is to create a work space that inspires you.
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