The Visibility Principle

What’s the key to organization and productivity? You’ll see.

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.

About the author

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 (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist.