Low floors. High ceilings.
This metaphor was first conceived by Seymour Papert in the 1970s as a design principle for the Logo programming language. Papert and others at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used Logo to teach mathematical thinking to children.
Thus, Papert advocated for Logo to be designed with low floors, to be easily accessible to young children, and simultaneously with high ceilings, to cater for more complexity as they advanced. Papert’s mentee, Mitchel Resnick, expanded on the concept in recent times.
Having generous height wasn’t enough. Resnick added an extra dimension of ‘wide walls’ to capture the concept of ‘leeway’—which is essential to exploration. Resnick is Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab, and a director of the Lifelong Kindergarten research group. He is also a founder of Scratch, a programming language for all. Like Papert before him, Resnick’s goal was to make programming accessible. Satisfying the trifecta of low floors-high ceilings-wide walls would allow for an easy entry point, the potential for increased sophistication, and expansive possibilities to support different needs and styles.
Parlaying that metaphor provides us with a framework with which to evaluate the visual organisational options, and how that fits with the creative workflow.
- Low floors: Is it easy to get started?
- High ceilings: Does it scale with use?
- Wide walls: Is it flexible to meet different creative needs?
But nailing those three criteria doesn’t mean that the tool is great? Not quite. Especially not if you are a visual-centric thinker, like an interior designer, fashion stylist, creative director or graphic designer, the reality is that organising still sucks.
In keeping with the building design metaphor, here are 5 reasons that you may find your digital creative home remarkably uncomfortable.
Too many stairs
Who likes climbing the stairs to a fifth-floor walkup? By the time you get there, you’re out of breath.
Many systems require us, the user, to do too much to make the tool work. Take the file saving hierarchy in our Mac or Windows desktop, or even in modern cloud-based apps like Google Drive or Dropbox. When you’re saving anything, the onus is placed on you to name the file correctly, and to place the file in the right place. Miss one or both, and you risk losing track of it.
Then comes the problem for creatives. For a word file, it’s not really a problem if you’ve misnamed something, or been a bit lax with your file management protocols. Mac’s Spotlight search can work reasonably well in combing through text, so you’ll be able to locate it as long as you have some recollection of the details. Plus there are plenty of dedicated search tools, like DevonThink, which can supercharge the search. But what happens when your file name is ‘‘Screenshot 2022-04-25 at 16.26.04’ and looks like this, amidst your sea of thousands of images?
Unless you’ve diligently, and presciently, added every conceivable tag as you were banking your visuals (how could you?), prepare for a handful to be consigned to your digital black hole, never to be withdrawn. To retrieve something, most tools require that you have done the legwork at the start in labelling, sorting, and predicting how you might recall it in the future. Possible for the most meticulous of individuals, but certainly asking too much of mere mortals (most of us).
Consider, now, a mixture of elevators and stairs that might improve the experience. Elevator features are those that do one or both of the following: they shortcut your process by reducing time and effort, and serve as a fallback should you need them (the stairs are still there for your ‘enjoyment’!). Examples include automatic tags, self-generating colour palettes, and detection of key metadata (e.g., brand and designer names). As a creative, you can choose to browse, organise, and filter your views with different properties. The elevator does the heavy lifting for you.
We put out a poll asking how people would retrieve this using just keyword search. Are you in the 94% or the 6%? It probably depends on your search intent—and whether you know who Iris van Herpen is when you saved it.
Wide walls aren’t a licence for unintuitive layouts.
“My brain doesn’t work this way” is a common refrain. The conventional digital folder system mirrors the real-life filing cabinet system. Each file could only physically be in one place. We’ve run with that metaphor, but at the risk of bumping up against our flow.
Whether you’re team ‘Collect Now, Sift Later’ or team ‘Curate On The Go’ (or somewhere on the spectrum), you’re likely to run up against the walls if you’re banking your inspiration in traditional mediums like your Desktop, or even modern platforms like Pinterest. Do you really want to stop and think, “Does this go into the ‘Minimalist’ or ‘Architecture’ board?” Unfortunately, the system requires you not just to make a decision there and then, but it also stops you in your tracks just when you thought you were getting going. Unpleasant cognitive loads are jammed in your way.
Wide walls won’t do well without hazard-free zones. Remove any hassle, however tiny, that interrupts the user’s creative flow. Allow them to choose when they do what they do. For example, on a hunt for Palm Springs inspiration? Go on a blitz and save 10 or 50 images in one go. Don’t bother yourself with choosing a board or naming it. When you’re ready, then triage. Clip them to different boards or add your own tags. Or do nothing: chalk them up as rainy day inspiration for the ‘just in case’ account. The idea is that you should be given the options to build your system so it is working for you, and not for the computer system.
Open shelves are great. And when you have walls of them? Glorious. That is, until you have too much on display, and wish you could slide a cabinet door over it all.
Many of our systems sound great, until maintenance woes creep in. We’ve all met that Ambitious Alex who starts off with the best of intentions. For instance, we’ve heard of a set designer who diligently files each picture into dedicated subfolders based on the system of Period (parent folder) > Furniture/Piece (sub-folder), and many creative directors who title their files in a format similar to Client_Year_ProjectTitle. But that discipline can quickly dissolve when the database becomes overwhelmingly large or repetitive. By then, you may be so committed or invested, that changing the system becomes infeasible (or unpalatable). Yet, you are left with one that has become untenable.
Add collaborators into the mix, and the “system” becomes trickier to manage. You may encourage everyone to follow your conventions in an attempt to keep things neat. But if you’re spending time policing compliance, instead of relying on the system to ease your process, it sounds like there’s a trade gone wrong there.
The trouble with open shelving isn’t just that upkeep is vital, since it’s there for everyone to see (mess and all). It’s also that the lack of partitions and dividers can be intimidating for anyone new to organising. Who actually gets things “right” the first time around without some trial and error?
A system for the creative must be lightweight and configurable. In visual libraries, tags are a great way to get started with organising, without the hassle of hierarchies and—it’s not said enough—that doomed feeling of commitment. Tags are highly flexible and can often lay the foundations for more complex, and long-term, organisational methods. Outside of specific projects, there’s also nothing stopping you from moving away from conventional folders and relying solely on tags to organise your archives, especially if you have a powerful search function available.
Unused attics and unloved basements. The equivalent in a creative’s library is that dusty archive of imagery that is waiting to be rediscovered (and possibly taking up precious gigabytes in the process).
A problem with so many of our creative tools is that they are great for storage, but not for inspiring us to rediscover old finds. The glut of platforms and apps has made it easier than ever for us to consume and collect new things, but, sadly, done little to encourage us to retrieve and revisit the old. One of my favourite Japanese words is “danshari (断捨離)”, which roughly means “refuse, dispose and separate.” Danshari features in digital libraries can be a great way to declutter or rediscover the old.
A well-designed space isn’t just one with low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls. It is also one that maximises every inch. In a library, that can translate into putting your ideas to work. Why settle for a visual storage tool, when you can have one that also turns into your playground for new ideas?
With all that said, even the most immaculately presented home—one with the right amount of stairs, the perfect layout, the trendy modular shelving, and top notch space utilisation—comes up short if it doesn’t meet the requirements of “location, location, location.” There is zero benefit in over-investing in a house that’s sitting on the wrong plot or facing the wrong orientation: your upside is limited. It’s the same with building and organising your creative home: the outcome has to justify the effort, but that rarely is the case.
When digital libraries offer a compounding effect—when you feel that the sum of the whole is more than the sum of its parts—you are encouraged to continue collecting and curating. Adding new items to a collection should create exponential value, but the way many digital asset managers are built means that things are often isolated in silos. We miss out on discovering useful connections between new and existing items from our library. Our library is a labyrinth of connections, related by colour, pattern, style, creator, and more. As things are added, deconstructed, remixed or combined with others, we are discovering new meanings and forming fresh creative intents.
A creative home conducive to creativity must be able to surface themes, relationships and patterns. Instead of “location, location, location”—it’s all about the links, links, and links.