One of my guilty pleasures is organization consultant Marie Kondo’s Netflix show, Tidying Up. Even those who’ve not seen her know of her, have seen the jokes about discarding those things that don’t “spark joy,” and have heard something about her growing influence. As I make my return to the design consulting world and leave integration behind, I find myself reflecting on Kondo’s lessons, on the backlashes to her and on what lessons we can learn from her outlook and approach.
The first impression I’ve had of Kondo was not, I’ll confess, a positive one; she’d been quoted as saying that one should keep no more than thirty books, throwing book-lover twitter into a blind rage. This turns out not to have been what she’d actually said: SHE didn’t keep more than thirty books, because that was the right number for her. This brings us to our first lesson:
Lesson the first: Joy is not universally quantifiable.
I feel the greatest kinship with Kondo through her initial meetings and consultations with the families who serve as her TV show clients. These initial greetings aren’t focused on their stuff, their organizational habits or similar. First she learns who they are. What’s important to them. How they live. What to keep or what to discard comes later.
Most importantly, when it comes time to choose which items to keep or which to discard Kondo doesn’t tell her clients which items should spark joy; this is a personal journey for each family to choose what they value, the presence of which items gives them happiness. She may be the guide, but the journey is theirs.
What can we learn from that? It’s easy to make assumptions based on our biases, based on industry trends, based on our experiences. While we still need to offer choices and still need to share the benefits of our knowledge, there is one truth for any of our projects:
It is not about us.
Maybe we’ve neen discussing the Death of the AV System and think (perhaps rightly) that the touch panel has become a niche product, suitable for only a handful of complex rooms. Perhaps we think a fancy phone or a PC running a soft client is a better small-conference room solution than VTC hardware. Perhaps we’ve been burned by so many interactive whiteboard solutions in search of a problem we’ve become loathe to recommend them for any but the most insistent clients. We may be “right” about all of the above, but may run into that one client for whom the touch panel interface DOES spark joy – or at least better fit into their culture and use case.
We may know that we’d keep fewer than thirty books, but need to help our client find a way to neatly and effectively display their library of a hundred.
Lesson the second: What you’ve been doing wrong all your life – and why.
The one thing about Kondo’s show that consistently blows minds is her method for folding shirts. I’ve always folded polo shirts and t-shirts the way you’d see them in a retail store: in a flat rectangle, just under shoulder-width with the collar visible top-center. When I was younger I even worked in a retail store and still have this fold deeply embedded in muscle memory. I’ve done it for decades, creating neat stacks of folded shirts, collars up.
Then I learned that it’s the wrong way to do it.
Kondo begins by folding a shirt into a much smaller rectangle, then tri-folds it into a tiny bundle which stands with the fold facing upright. This lets you pack many more shirts into a drawer and has each visible. The way I’d folded them they’d stack one atop the other, and one would have to tunnel downward to see the full collection. Now they’re all visible on simply opening the drawer.
After I did this for some weeks, a truth occurred to me: the way I’d been folding them before WAS right. It was right for displaying shirts in a store, for creating a visually appealing display showing the shape of the collar and a logo as well as the color. It was also the wrong way in that it was wrong for packing things into a drawer after I already knew what they looked like.
I was doing something as simple as folding a shirt sub-optimally because I wasn’t thinking about why I was folding it as I was. This is a universal lesson which can fit into nearly everything we do. Forget how you’ve always done something; look at your goal and your audience. Then decide if you’re doing it the right way.
Lesson the third: Be in harmony, not in conflict.
This is a simple one, and starts with one of the moments we in this culture might find strange. Kondo begins each episode by thanking her clients’ house and encouraging them to do the same. There are a few things I take from this. My first reaction is that it forms a spiritual connection to space. You not only think about it, but feel gratitude towards it and a connection with it. Your home shelters you. It effects both your physical and emotional state.
As many of us spend as many if not more of our waking hours at work than we do at home, the same can be said for the office. We should appreciate our space, try to understand it, work within it. Too often we fail to do so and, rather than approach a space with gratitude, we approach with hostility. This opens conflict at a very fundamental level — with the very space in which we are to be working. That leads to conflicts with the interiors team, lighting and perhaps even the client.
This is the biggest and most important lesson we can all learn from Kondo. I’ve never seen her tell a client that they’re wrong in their priorities or had ill-chosen their space.
I’ve never seen her tell a client which of their things they should value.
I HAVE seen her bring a spiritual awareness to the practical matter of tidying up and removing clutter. Holding a thing to see if it sparks joy. Feeling a connection to ones space and belongings.
We can be a very pragmatic industry, and very pragmatic people with a new focus on analytics making us more so. As I said earlier, those of us designing for workplaces are working on spaces in which people may spend more of their waking lives than they do anywhere else.
Perhaps we — all of us — can focus on finding a spiritual as well as practical connection.