Piles Versus Files

Any way you stack it, some work is meant to be left out in the open.


Desk of Christy MacLear, Executive Director, Philip Johnson Glass House Museum


Piles: Everyone gets them, and some of us admit it openly–and seek treatment. Christy MacLear, executive director of the Philip Johnson Glass House Museum in New Canaan, Connecticut, spent two years looking for an office desk that augments–rather than disguises–her piling ways. She describes her work style as “managing through piles.” MacLear assigns each project its own stack of papers. “If I don’t see them (they are in a cabinet) then the project might as well be in cold storage,” she says. Many productivity experts agree that documents should stay more or less visible until you are finished using them. At that point, most papers can either be recycled or banished to closed filing cabinets.

Piles don’t tend to be pretty. They eat up space on your desktop, sprawling out across every available surface like a ravenous suburb. And as piles grower deeper and taller, they stop being useful. Even when we defend our piles as essential outgrowths of our fast-moving minds, we know in our hearts that sooner or later, our piles will bury us alive if we don’t control them. Confronting her problem head-on, MacLear commissioned industrial designer Leon Ransmeier to design a desk that acknowledges her stacking habit, yet gives it shape and structure.


Leon Ransmeier, desk for Christy MacLear, 2009


Submerged piles. Ransmeier created storage surfaces that slide out like drawers but have open sides like shelves. These roomy stacking trays are attached to runners along just one edge, providing more visibility and easier access than a full-fledged drawer. Ransmeier explains, “The contents of the desk remain in sight to a certain extent and so are never really ‘gone.’ The horizontal format is retained, preserving any inherent chronology, but the piles are suspended below the work surface, freeing up desk space.” Will MacClear’s papers be visible enough? Will she really keep the top of her new desk free and open, or will its surface remain an irresistible draw for stacks of stuff? Ransmeier is producing a limited number of desks for Richard Wright’s contemporary commissions program, so a few lucky paper pilers will have a chance to try out the system for themselves.


Al Gore’s office, illustration by Ellen Lupton from Design Your Life, 2009

Virtual piles. Some of the world’s most productive people are pilers. Al Gore, for example, is a busy guy, with mounds of paper to prove it. Not only does Gore’s home office harbor vast stacks of books and reports, he also has a triple computer screen. This super-sized virtual desktop allows him to move quickly between open documents and applications. Many creative workers stay productive by keeping their virtual piles spread out and easy to glance at on multiple screens. And many of us heap up our digital desktops with the documents that we want close at hand.


Jennifer Northrop’s office, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Vertical piles. Not all piles are ugly. My colleague Jennifer Northrop is director of communications and marketing at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Neatly pinned to her office wall are dozens of printed materials created by the museum. When Northrop is talking on the phone or meeting with colleagues, she can look at physical evidence of the museum’s brand, spread out evenly across the wall. Her work is laid out before her, visible to herself and to anyone who visits her office.

Whether sloppy or elegant, piles of paper occupy space. They can fill it up in a gluttonous frenzy or articulate it with clarity and order. Piles represent time as well as space. They don’t just happen overnight. Like the strata of civilization exposed in an archaeological dig, piles of paper are the temporal residue of thinking and working. They are relics of projects that were once loved or abandoned, consummated or put to death. Tomorrow’s post is about visualizing time, publicly and privately.


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.

Read more of Ellen Lupton’s Design Your Life blog
Browse blogs by other Expert Designers

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.


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