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Just Google “messy desk.”

Forbes, Business Insider, The New York Times, and any number of blogs will assure you that out of desktop chaos can come the very best of innovation. University studies have even been devoted to the topic of the cluttered workspace and its benefits to creative thought.

I generally have a messy desk both at work and at home. I don’t like clutter, but since I’m a working parent I claim higher priorities than tidiness. Recently I looked more closely at the “empty desk, empty mind” topic and was struck by these comments from designer Eric Karjaluoto of smashLAB:

A number of myths around creativity are simply hardwired into our culture. In no particular order: The belief that designers are sensitive prima donnas whose needs must be catered to; The idea that “eureka” moments come only after great toil; The belief that you need to create a mess in order to pull out a gem; The perception that ideas occur as a result of random, chaotic action, and are only impeded by rational, clear-headed examination and planning.

The problem with all of this is that a great deal of it isn’t accurate—particularly when it comes to design. Most designers I know are normal, sensible folks who like to solve problems. I think a lot of us start to find that our insights don’t come from within, but rather are the result of truly understanding a problem. Many appear to gravitate towards increasingly methodical ways of working, and documenting, their processes. And, with time, even their experiments become less random.

GoInvo designers, like most, approach this question in a variety of ways. 

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Clutter is a distraction for me so I keep my desk pretty sparse. Only the bare essentials are within arms reach. It helps me focus. And any mess I do make is usually a series of sketches attempting to untangle some complex system I’m thinking about. — Eric Benoit

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I like to think that a cluttered desk isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I don't believe that it's a requirement for creativity. Design is messy but it's drawn out of order just as much as out of mess and clutter, and in either case vision often needs to be tamed by order and practicality for successful design. Not just designers, but anyone will naturally organize their workspace to match their process and way of thinking. I really resent the idea that designers are sensitive and delicate creatures. Designers are made of harder stuff and can and need to take criticism, especially since critique is such a big part of the design process. We can be wrong. A lot of the time. Design takes research and experimentation and finding all the wrong answers before we arrive at the right answer. — Jen Patel

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I have been writing my own music since I was eleven. I have found that there is no exact formula for me. Most musicians I've worked with are disheveled and messy, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a great song writer. On the other hand, you sometimes hear of amazingly talented artists are are neat freaks, perfectionists, and so on. Many great minds/artists have had routines—I believe I remember reading that Beethoven dumped a pot of water over himself every morning. I think it honestly just depends on the person. Music comes to me when I am absent minded or doing mundane tasks. A theme will be running in my head, sometimes for quite some time before I even realize it. This also happens when I am falling asleep. I also hear music in my dreams, and sometimes I will be able to remember it when I wake up and record the idea. The music comes when my brain is not actively seeking it, but instead when it is relaxed or on "auto-pilot" (which could be argued is a form of meditation). Even after writing music for 15 years, I cannot pick when I will write something good, or something I like. It happens when it happens, according to my emotions, my surroundings, and so on. I might argue that toiling away at something hour after hour, creating a “mess,” only produces a “gem” because your brain becomes so fatigued that the subconscious is allowed entry, to guide your pen or fingers. — Craig McGinley

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Note the sketchbook, Copic markers, drawing space, and resin at the ready. Always. — Sarah Kaiser

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Note the lack of a chair. There’s a treadmill, instead. Clear desk, tools at hand, surrounding prints in disarry, and movement. — Juhan Sonin

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Koko seems to have a number of well-organized design projects ongoing. Good dog, Koko. — Koko Sleeper

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We love to eat here at the studio. There is a full size kitchen where we routinely cook meals for each other; everyone sits down together at our long table to share food and conversation. One of our Care Cards encourages us to “Eat more food. Not too much, mostly plants.” In that spirit, we try to keep our meals healthy and full of fresh vegetables. Thus, it made a lot of sense for us to become an early adopter of the Grove Labs home ecosystem, called a “Grove.”

Grove Labs is a startup company located very close to us, over in Somerville, MA. It began with a homemade aquaponic garden shared by two classmates and friends at MIT. They quickly realized this was a concept they could share with the world, and anyone could do it! The goal was to afford people access to healthy, sustainably-grown food. The pair raised money and built prototypes, and it wasn't long before they had a team and product built up and were ready to take on early adopters like us.

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Just about the whole gang, very excited, in front of our new Grove.

Setting up the Grove was exciting. We carried the towers up to our kitchen and leveled them side by side. Then we connected the reservoirs of the towers and filled them up with water.

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Carrying the towers up to our kitchen.

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Leveling the towers.

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The Grove Labs team members Emily and Brooks explain how to jumpstart the ecosystem.

The Grove is a self-sustaining ecosystem and doesn’t require much work to maintain. It starts with the water reservoirs in the bottom of the system, which breed friendly bacteria. These bacteria are responsible for breaking down waste and ammonia into nutrients that plants need. In the fish tank (which has to remain without fish until the ecosystem is kickstarted and the water is healthy for aquatic life), our new pets will produce the waste products that the bacteria need to consume. This whole process of fish waste -> bacteria conversion -> plant food is known as cycling. The Grove is designed to cycle in as fast as two weeks.

The tank, reservoirs, and planting basins are all connected through a series of tubes, filters, drains, valves, and pumps. This allows the system to circulate water and nutrients, much like a natural outdoor ecosystem does. The intervaled water circulation process is maintained by Grove OS. That’s right, this beauty is sort of like a cyborg. On the top of the Grove towers, there is an elegantly designed motherboard and electronic interface (the setup sort of reminds me of a guitar amplifier).

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A look at the manual user interface on the Grove.

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The motherboard can be found inside the head unit.

This motherboard houses the Grove operating system and is also connected to Wi-Fi. The Grove OS dictates when water cycling processes should occur. On top of that, the Grove also has built in “grow lights” (lights that emit on three bands of the electromagnetic spectrum appropriate for photosynthesis) for each plant growing area, as well as the fish tank. Not only does the Grove maintain the water cycling, but it also controls the sun (well, the plants think it’s the sun, at least)!

Still, the best part of Grove OS is that it’s connected to the internet, and we interact with it through a mobile web app. We can log in to control the Grove by setting timers for lights and water pumps.

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Using the Grove OS app.

We routinely check the pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels in the water by testing them manually and can track (and soon chart) them over time. This provides insight into how our Grove is cycling and performing, and serves as an indicator of the overall health of our system. It’s also pretty fun and involves lots of cool colors.

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SCIENCE!

We decided to start out growing some of the recommended plants that came with our Grove kit. We planted arugula, chinese cabbage, a couple other types of lettuce, parsley, cilantro, shishito peppers, and lots of tomatoes and strawberries!

To help us keep track of what we planted and where, the studio got together and did some caricatures for the different plants, and the empty fish tank.

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We used the largest grow bed to plant tomatoes. They aren't sitting in cocoa pebbles however. Those balls absorb nutrients from the water with each pump cycle and store them for the plants!

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All the artists in the studio contributed labels.

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Our fish tank was too lonely.

Now we’re waiting for the Grove to complete its first cycle. Some little seedings have already started growing, and the health of our ecosystem seems pretty spot on. Once the cycle has completed and the water chemicals and nutrients reach their desired levels, we can introduce our fish. In about 5 more weeks, we should be able to harvest our first batch of veggies and fruit.

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The widely-circulated story today that Google fired an employee for reviewing the "private" files and information of users, and even harassed a user based on their "private" information might seem shocking, but it's really only illustrating something that those of us in the industry have known for years: anything we say, type or otherwise create that goes thru a pipe or a satellite or an antenna is fully accessible by every touchpoint in the process. It is kind of like being spied on by someone looking thru a peephole: we think it is private and "ours" but in reality we are buck naked for any prying eye to see.

The example in this story is an excellent one, because it really captures the depth of penetration. The offender was accessing the victim's Gmail and Google Voice accounts, thus able to see what they were writing and hear what they were saying. Of course, it doesn't stop there. When they sent email from Gmail on their home Internet, let's pretend it was Comcast cable Internet, Comcast was able to take all of those bits and bytes, too. When the call was made over the, for example, Sprint Cellular network, you've got a whole other infrastructure that data is exposed to. When you further consider that, in some cases, a Sprint has deals with other cellular companies to pick up your calls so you don't drop in certain circumstances, at times even MORE cell companies potentially have your words. What about in cases where servers are being outsourced, where a smaller email provider than Google is the email provider and they are using Indian Server Farm X for storage. The email provider and software infrastructure is one risk point; the physical storage location is another. And the pipes in between still another.

Is your head spinning yet?

Reality: any time you communicate using electronic means what you write/say/do is vulnerable.

Surfing to a porn site? Bzzzzzzzz. That's captured by the ISP, and the browser, and perhaps even servers behind the browser - not to mention the porn site itself - and can be recalled even years later. Bye bye campaign for state representative.

Spouse cheated on you and you are taking your frustration out by cursing them out in brutal, graphic language to your best buddy on IM? Bzzzzzzzz. That's captured by the IM client, likely on a file on your computer you don't know is there, possibly by the ISP, and likely on a file on your best buddy's computer that they don't know is there! There a much greater than zero chance that rant is going to get back to you and embarrass you later. As if getting cheated on isn't embarrassment enough!

The most personal and intimate of moments are only so intimate as the people controlling the servers and software and pipes decide they will be. That veneer of protection is little solace for those who are uncomfortable: we have thousands of years of human history proving our fallibility, our character flaws. So long as humans are the mitigators there will be more stories like this. It probably won't happen to you or me, but increasingly it will happen to people we know in ways large and small. Consider Google's stance on it, from the above article:

"...a limited number of people will always need to access these systems, if we are to operate them properly--which is why we take any breach so seriously," Google's Bill Coughran, senior vice president of engineering

There are three paths we can take:

1. We can unplug, not participate, and minimize our exposure. Hardly practical given the world today, but it is an available and viable option.

2. We can accept that we could surprisingly be exposed completely beyond our control in any possible way at any given moment, embrace it, and conduct ourselves in a way that lets us live with it.

3. The system could be changed - by legislation, or programming, or some sort of third-party security software that reduces or perhaps eliminates our exposure.

With the increasing attention and investment given to security software I rather think this will be the eventual solution. There is lots of money to be made in this space, and it is a problem that will get larger and upset more people the more we shift to being an operationally digital society.

In the meantime I pick #2. I hate for the world to see me naked, but I know it could happen at any damn moment. I'm not really going to change my behaviour, rather acknowledge the risk and let it ride. I suppose it is rather like continuing to drive a car despite the potential of a life-ending accident being just around the next corner. You try not to think about it, and simply join the flow with the rest of society. Here's hoping I stay lucky.

Most of our customers are relatively sophisticated with technology. They either own tech start-ups or are in a role where they are involved in the software, website, IT, digital marketing or some other type of technology within their company. Not surprisingly many of them carry powerful mobile computing devices and are far ahead of the general population in their adoption and use of these tools. In fact, if you are reading this, you probably count among these progressive few.

What we often miss is how most people - the ones we want to buy our products and services or otherwise patronize our companies - are very different. They don’t carry iPhone’s and Blackberry’s. They have a relatively new Facebook account and are amazed that it enables them to connect to so many people. They see Twitter as an odd website that lets them stare, mouth agape, at publicly preening celebrities. Some of them are wading into Netflix while others stoically observe these newfangled services and think it is not for them. Most people “in” the industry assume that the rest of our friends and neighbours are similarly inculcated into the cult of digital technology but the reality is that most are not. For those people, the things we take for granted, especially in a mobile context, seem like an incredible sort of magic. I observe this all of the time and particularly saw it again and again just over the last week:

- I was playing a historical boardgame this weekend about World War I commerce raiders (yes, I’m a geek) and myself and some of the other players were talking interestedly about some of the old ships. Rather than idly speculate I whipped out my iPhone and in literal seconds had pictures and the historical information on the ships in question. (Side note: did you know that the Germans scuttled their ships in Guam as soon as the U.S. joined the war? I didn’t, until we read about some of the boats on the iPhone). For the other players, none of whom seem to have experience with mobile computing, it was a moment of magic. There was genuine shock and surprise that the pictures and images were there so quickly and clearly. The fact that we went from idle speculation and fun conversation to real historical pictures and information was a delightful surprise. They looked at my iPhone like it was an alien device. Certainly they are all familiar with iPhones conceptually, but the degree to which it allowed a static analog moment to transform into a dynamic digital moment had real power and impact.

- When discussing good movies with a couple of people, one of them discussed a movie that sounded really interesting, 1612. Rather than let my poor, aging memory lose the plot I pulled out the iPhone, opened my Netflix application and in a matter of seconds found the movie and put it in my queue. As with the previous example, there was genuine interest and surprise expressed by the people around me. It created a moment where they wanted to see that I really could search for and put any movie immediately into my queue. A few titles were suggested to test the system. Everyone was impressed. Ultimately it was less about the iPhone and more about how it changed the way we lived: rather than being left to struggle to remember the good movies being discussed the movie could both be immediately remembered, and even put into a queue where it would later be delivered in the mail for leisurely watching.

- I also had a recent example where I, the CEO of a software company, had my own magical moment of wonder. I took my son Brandon to a Moby concert, where we stood right in the front row center on the floor, no more than 10 feet from the legendary performer. We were having a great time, and I wished I could capture how close we really were. Well, I didn’t need to wish; I realized I had my iPhone in my pocket. I’m not much of a photographer and rarely take pictures, so I have not yet really incorporated the camera on the iPhone into my lifestyle. But after the Moby concert, I will never forget again. I got a lot of really close photos. To be honest, many of the photos were garbage because of the camera quality on the iPhone. But a few are passable, and many of them convey the closeness of the moment. I’ve been to a lot of concerts over the years, from various Moby shows, to Pink Floyd, to Underworld, and even bad 80’s hair metal. I never used to have pictures to preserve those moments. What I wouldn’t give for photos of seeing Pink Floyd in the Silverdome…20 years ago?!? Now, I will never again attend a concert and NOT have photos to remember it. Absolutely remarkable.

Mobile computing is magical. Many of us “in the industry” take that for granted because of our deep immersion into it. As a consequence, we miss the trick when planning and designing for real-world users. For most people the technology we create truly remains magical. That remarkable reality needs to influence our planning, architecture, design and development. To not adjust our thinking to account for this, we are making the classic designer’s mistake of creating for ourselves as opposed to others. That’s not design, it’s art. I don’t think that’s what our clients and employers are paying us to do. It’s why I spend more time watching and sharing technology with others to learn about cultural trends than I do simply enjoying the technology myself. Designing great products means understanding your users, and particularly in mobile design we need to remember that the users we all hope to get in the next billion adopters are comprised of people who see these wonderful toys as magic, as opposed to simply the latest and greatest gadget.

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