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The Cleanliness and Messiness of a Computing Workspace

The design magazine available in Flipboard is a bedtime guilty pleasure. There’s something surreal about flipping through the architectural creativity exhibited in many of the living and housing feeds, the condos and homes that are built as showpieces for world-renown architects along with the carefully orchestrated, yet completely unrealistic, living spaces set by interior designers.

And hey, I get the motivations: nobody likes a cluttered dwelling, and a clean – if a bit spartan – living area removes the distractions of clutter and allows the viewer to project their own vision onto the space. Of the countless open houses that I’ve visited in the past year, the ones that presented the best were the ones which were professionally staged to sell; the homes with actual living residents betrayed clear signs of, well, living.

If I remember my Japanese 101 class, the term for tidy – kirei (綺麗) – also implies prettiness and general positivity.

Of course, people would want to apply the same concepts to computing. Lifehacker has a long-running series on the configuration and customization of computing desktops, which usually feature a hi-res wallpaper coupled with various data overlays, like a calendar or a task manager or service notifications. It’s harmless productivity and design porn, setups that make for pretty screenshots but have questionable utility. A dribble for system monitors.

There’s the equivalent for computing spaces; they typically feature someone’s home office setup, with a big computer screen and a bunch of auxiliary computing devices carefully placed to maximize creative potential. Turns out Lifehacker has a series featuring workspaces as well, but I like the variety of decors and equipment that each workspace shows off, even if the vast majority it’s carefully arranged and has no real bearing on how these desks look every day.

Then Mac Desks comes along.

On the surface, it’s a blog that specializes in Apple-centric workspaces; Apple does produce attractive and clean hardware, and their iMacs and MacBooks and iPads earn their fair share of the “cool workspace” photo galleries. These setups embrace the Apple aesthetic of plain white or silver desks, hidden or wireless peripherals and Apple-friendly accessories, laid out in such a way as to invoke that sense of creative possibility while keeping things kirei.

Discounting for a moment the creative virtue in messiness, what I find concerning is the utter disregard for ergonomics. Apple keyboards look cool, but keep the wrists in an unnatural position; the Mighty Mouse is an ergonomic nightmare that trains its users to develop a claw death grip; monitors are placed to force heads to crane downwards. The human body doesn’t fix itself at 90-degree angles, and forcing it to adapt to the rigidity of rectangles is a heavy price to pay for vanity.

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