The Visibility Principle


Shown above is the desk of Alicia Cheng, a graphic designer whose Brooklyn-based firm MGMT creates exhibitions, publications, and identities for cultural clients. Cheng's desk may be cluttered, but it's beautiful. A pile of paper sits next to her keyboard. Books lean against a sorting tray. The wall is covered with calendars, contact sheets, works in progress, and odd bits of inspiration. Cheng's desk is an image of her busy, productive mind. It is a simple, direct manifestation of how designers think.

Many people believe that design is about how things look. Is a laptop, logo, or coffee mug pink or green, classic or contemporary, dumpy or sleek? Designers will tell you that design goes way deeper than appearances. Design is about thinking. It's about strategy and structure and systems.

Yet thinking itself often takes a visible form. Many people do their best thinking with a pen, pencil, or keyboard. By making ideas visible, we make them concrete, giving thought an understandable shape. From quick sketches to detailed blueprints, visualization is an essential tool for thinking. It's also a tool for communicating. A project team creating a new software application might compile a wall of PostIt notes to collaborate and brainstorm. Teachers use chalkboards to explain how a bill becomes a law, and kids learn to add and subtract by drawing pictures of apples and oranges. With that in mind—and in sight—here are four visibility principles for organization.

Show, don't tell. A sign saying "Show, don't tell" hangs in my daughter's fifth-grade classroom. Generations of writers have embraced this slogan, learning to build an argument or tell a story using concrete actions and images rather than disembodied abstractions. ("The dog wagged his tail" trumps "The dog was happy.") Thinking and communicating with examples that people can see—whether through literal pictures or mental ones—works better than trafficking in generalized "objectives," "goals," and other corporate vagaries.

See and be seen. Work is a social activity. Even writers, whose work requires periods of sacred isolation (fifteen minutes is often all we can find), also crave the buzz and jangle of people and public places. Everyone values some degree of privacy, but in today's workspaces, people are increasingly visible to each other, not only through direct contiguity (Sheila's desk is next to Fred's desk) but also through social media and networked devices.

Out of sight, out of mind...for a while. The stuff sitting on Alicia Cheng's desk and hanging on her wall is stuff she wants to keep in mind and find easily. The problem is, many of us post photos and reminders on our bulletin boards and soon stop looking at them. Eventually, even materials staring you in the face become invisible, fading into the background like a pee-stained rug. A vital personal workspace is constantly changing, inspiring you to keep looking.

Make a list. (You're reading one.) Lists are one of the oldest genres of written communication. Long before people wrote down poetry, they were keeping track of flocks of sheep and bales of hay. Freeform and non-linear, lists are quick to make and easy to absorb. The act of writing a list helps you kick-start your memory and ignite new ideas. To-do lists are interactive: we often put things on lists for the sheer pleasure of crossing them out.

This week, Ellen Lupton is exploring the Visibility Principle. Whether you manage a big office or run your own show from home, you can use it to enhance your productivity.

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Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore (MICA). An author and illustrator of numerous books, articles, and blogs on design, she is populist critic, frequent lecturer, and 2007 AIGA Gold Medalist. Now working on Cooper-Hewitt's 2010 National Design Triennial, Lupton also co-curated the museum's current sustainability exhibition, Design for a Living World. Ellen Lupton's latest book, Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things (2009), is co-authored with her twin sister, Julia; and her books Indie Publishing: How to Design and Produce Your Own Book (2008) and D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself (2006) are co-authored with her MFA students. Baltimore-based Lupton and husband Abbott Miller, a partner in the design firm Pentagram, met as students at The Cooper Union and collaborate on books, exhibitions, and their kids Jay and Ruby.

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  • Manjit Syven Birk

    What I am looking at is Alicia Cheng's summer wall. I can only figure out how designers think through two routes. Either through the visibility of their raw passion and that is in the moment, or by observing the changes at intervals of time. In this case it would be much more instructive to me to see Cheng's "autumn wall", as well as the same picture as a "winter wall" and a "spring wall". It is the observation of the changes in these four views that would give me a far more realizable impression of her "design thinking". Why I think "design thinking" is personally important is that I see that imitation is the natural way of groups, and what "design thinking" I perceive should allow me to see is the roots or neurons of innovation. I do not want to become a clone of Cheng's way of organizing and looking at life, what I want to do is get a sense of the living shifts and transformations and that means getting a feel for the seasons of one's life. In that regard, that is why I think four photo intervals as seasonal views (that retain the quality unconscious presence where one does not become conscious of one's own wall) becomes far more of an interesting observation than the linear perspective of a single view. . . M.

  • umd

    "Show, don't tell"
    how about words will do the trick with help of "Thinking with Type"!!?? But I agree nowadays it is more of the talk we can see.
    "Out of sight, out of mind...for a while"
    I could not find sacred isolation not even in a toilet at workplace!! Most of the time I meet my CEO there!

  • Jonathan Baldwin

    "Teachers use chalkboards to explain how a bill becomes a law"
    Following the current health care legislation going through the House from here in the UK, I'd love to see how any teacher can encapsulate *that* on a blackboard. "Show don't tell" would be a good maxim for some of its opponents, I reckon.

  • Freddy Nager

    Interesting article! Is Alice available to fix up my office? Please?

    I totally endorse "Show, Don't Tell." It's one of the rules I impose on my marketing students. In this hyper-informed age, everyone has an opinion, and is eager to vent it. That's fine for us mad bloggers (venting relieves pressure around the upper ego). But good academic writing -- and business thinking -- requires proof. In corporate board rooms filled with ideas, the ones that have the most factual support are the ones that get turned into policy...

    Unless, of course, you run a Web 2.0 company, in which case you could suggest giving away all the company's products in hopes of making it up on advertising, but that's the topic for an entirely different post...