Alex Steer

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Brands and the order fetish

719 words | ~4 min

I have the kind of handwriting that could induce a stroke. I have no idea what my desk looks like, because I haven't seen it since October. I was one of those people who wanted to be neat, and to write all my ideas down in an immaculate notebook, in a sort of clean, clear, Apple-sponsored vision of modern creative productivity. Instead, I am one of those people who writes illegibly on bits of scrap paper, at the kind of carnival angles that only left-handed people seem to opt for, in a sort of cryptographic shorthand, which ends up on my desk in an arrangement that is impervious to rational analysis.

All of which is odd, because I'm not a particularly messy thinker. In fact, I've always been quite good at sifting, sorting and distilling. I love structured data, dictionaries, bibliographic descriptive catalogues, well-written code, creative briefs, and, yes, those systems diagrams that make people laugh at consultants and futurists. I can't help it, I'm afraid. I'm a natural boiler-down of things.

I think a lot of people in my line of work are probably of the same cast of mind, and I imagine it's tempting to assume that the instinct to simplify and add structure comes from a fear of disorder. By that reading, the entire strategic planning profession is made up of people of the kind who gave Thomas Carlyle such sleepless nights in Signs of the Times (1829):

The same habit regulates not our modes of action alone, but our modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavour, and in natural force, of any kind. Not for internal perfection, but for external combinations and arrangements, for institutions, constitutions, - for Mechanism of one sort or other, do they hope and struggle. Their whole efforts, attachments, opinions, turn on mechanism, and are of a mechanical character. We may trace this tendency in all the great manifestations of our time; in its intellectual aspect, the studies it most favours and its manner of conducting them; in its practical aspects, its politics, arts, religion, morals; in the whole sources, and throughout the whole currents, of its spiritual, no less than its material activity.

In other words, we're order fetishists, relying on systems and structures to add a soothing veneer of comprehensibility to the complex and chaotic.

But I'm not sure. See, a fetish (in the non-whips-and-chains sense, if you please) is a piece of magical thinking, something you do to impose order on a world you can't control, whose effect you can really only hope for. Like crossing your fingers for luck, or avoiding black cats, or paying for brand ads. (Sorry.)

What you might call 'messy structured thinking' is different. It starts with the desire to act in the world, and it ends with a plan of campaign. The sorting out and simplifying and diagramming is (or should be) just an intermediate stage. And before it can be neat and tidy, good planning needs to be messy and complicated, capable of taking in as much dissimilar and discontinous stuff as possible, then working out which bits can be acted upon to make change.

And that's why plannery types can look both messy and compulsively neat, depending on what they're up to. And that's why my desk is a mess. Or at least that's my excuse.

The real order fetish assumes that you get to action by starting with neatness. You can see it at work in a lot of productivity and stationery brands - think Moleskine, for example. And be honest - how many of you have a posh notebook that you're too scared to write in because you don't want to mess it up? TippEx, despite its incredible YouTube campaign, has a bit of an order fetish to it as well; and I've already mentioned Apple.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a stationery brand that appreciated the value of scribble and scrap?

# Alex Steer (11/06/2011)