De-cluttering a Visually Cluttered World

As highly visual types, architects often are aggravated by things we encounter every day that go unnoticed by most people. Believe me, it’s both a blessing and a curse. Only rarely, it seems, do we delight in something we’ve stumbled upon in the visual world.

Think about it. As we walk or drive around, we are continually assaulted by poorly conceived, disjointed, and downright obnoxious attempts to apprise, attract, direct, and warn us with various signs, marquees, billboards, and notices. In that wide-angle view, zoning regulations can only go so far, and it may be hard to imagine some overarching, draconian framework designed to bring ordo ab chao without heading toward an undesirable homogeneity. Variety is, after all, the spice of life, right?

But what about zooming-in a bit and trying to reign-in visual clutter within our buildings, where we might be able exert some control?

On a recent tour of several new and architecturally notable public and academic libraries in the Boston area, I was astonished at the pervasiveness of ad hoc signage haphazardly taped to nearly every available surface. No doubt these paper placards were produced by well-intentioned staff to provide temporal or supplemental information to patrons. It wasn’t necessarily the messages that I objected to, but rather, it was their overwhelming quantity and lack of attractive, cohesive design that troubled me. Basic computer skills and access to a color printer does not a good graphic designer make.

I don’t mean to single out libraries as the only offender here: we see this kind of visual clutter in most public buildings. But my tour got me wondering why the staff immediately felt the need to post these bills all over their brand new buildings, upon which the architect had otherwise lavished considerable attention to the design and details. What went wrong there?

As architects, we are obligated to make sure that required way-finding signage is part of the project. We often are involved in room identification and donor signage, too. But clearly there is another, distinct layer of changeable, information signage that’s needed in many kinds of buildings, a layer that is largely ignored until after the building is in use.

Well, we’d better start paying attention. We should strive to anticipate supplemental, staff-generated signage early in the design process. That way, we can devise ways to pre-format it, and artfully integrate it into the building’s design. Some clients may question the expense, but the burden is on us to convince them why it is worth it.

Charles Mueller
Charles Mueller received his Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1983 and 1984. Upon graduation, one of his professors, Robert L. Harper, invited him to join Centerbrook Architects and Planners, where he is currently a principal.
Charles Mueller

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About Charles Mueller

Charles Mueller received his Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1983 and 1984. Upon graduation, one of his professors, Robert L. Harper, invited him to join Centerbrook Architects and Planners, where he is currently a principal.

6 thoughts on “De-cluttering a Visually Cluttered World

  1. After reading your blog, I am really seeing all these “eyessores” we see millions of times during our life.
    Like the 60’s song goes ‘signs,signs everywhere there’s signs….’.

  2. Wow, now that I read this — I can see it all over my own office space. Perhaps a challenge for each of us, non-architects, to improve what exists.

  3. This is just a complement to change culture inside the office,industry, etc…
    is a part of standard work and 5 “S” method,
    The productivity will increase believe me,
    just try it!

  4. I have worked in the public sector on and off for 30 years. Rules change, functions change and the quick and easy way to deal with this is to stick up a sign. The organisation in which I work now has a ‘no temporary signage’ rule and there are purpose built banners throughout the public area for which corporate stationery is supplied. It does look better but sometimes you just gotta stick up that bit of A4…

  5. Visual Workplace-5S saves bout 30% of space in any inviroment, be that office of shop floor.
    Luis you are correct it is but just one of many lean tools to remove waste and make vale flow!

  6. 5S has been mentioned as a clearer path to organization. One of the little discussed side affects of 5S is that it actually makes problems solvers out of its users. Those signs were all a result of a “problem”. Enforcing strict 5S rules forces the participants to determine the root cause of the issues before they can try and implement a solution. Asking why a thing or an event has happened is important to determining a real solution to its fix. Efficiency is gained only when the root cause is determined and effective countermeasures are employed. The art of everything having a place and everything being in its place is only the start of the journey. Not solving the problems ensure that the “places” will regain their previous status as clutter at some point.

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