The ‘Art of the Clean Up’: creating order out of chaos

“The Art of Clean Up: Life Made Neat and Tidy” is a new book by Swiss artist Ursus Wehrli presenting his wonderfully perfectionist’s eye for obsessively creating order where there is none.

I talked about physical visualisation in yesterday’s post about the tactile wood maps but this work goes a stage further, reorganising and laying out elements of everyday life and imagery based on size, colour, shape and any other ‘orderable’ physical variable.

Chips1 Chips2

What I find intriguing about these works is the idea of looking at a scene in a completely fresh perspective, breaking it down in to non-cohesive components and isolating all the individual constructing elements. I wonder if there is something we can learn from this approach (or at least mindset) and apply to our visualisation design techniques. Perhaps by looking more forensically at our designs we can isolate those elements that represent data, those that are purely chart apparatus, the colour schemes, the hierarchy of sizes, the text usage etc. From this analysis we could then judge the suitability and justifiability of what we include in our work, what is redundant and what is superfluous.



FrancisMarch 5th, 2013 at 4:44 pm

I would suggest that it represents a tension in our work of reconciling beauty and purpose. Order might have its own beauty, but much of the beauty surrounding us is not strictly organized: the branches of a tree, hair flowing in the wind, city skylines, the path of a river, the randomness of a flame, Jackson Pollock’s painting seen above. By constantly organizing and grouping and aligning, we might be losing part of the beauty that we are trying to call in support of our insights. When a data design doesn’t quite click, it might be worth exploring a little less organization rather than a little more.

Andy KirkMarch 5th, 2013 at 4:53 pm

That’s a really good point Francis. I also think it comes back to personal style. I guess my own style would be more routed in order and an obsessiveness about every pixel! But you’re right, for others, the loosening of the shackles may be more helpful.

Michael BabwahsinghMarch 5th, 2013 at 9:20 pm

Interesting to read your take on Wehrli’s art from a data visualization perspective, Andy, especially how you propose the use of an analytic lens to deconstruct finished designs and find an ideal balance of elements “post-visualization.” On the flip side, I find Wehrli’s approach indispensable during “pre-visualization,” when a new or complex situation requires rapid sense-making in order to uncover the right problem to tackle and the right data/content to work with. Many meetings feel like alphabet soup, with all kinds of thoughts swirling around with no order, so having the ability to quickly sort everyone’s ideas into clear buckets is essential to a productive outcome (visual facilitation is an example of this work).

Regarding the aesthetics of order vs. randomness, I think Wehrli’s work — photos of organized objects that are considered art — challenges the notion of where beauty comes from. I love how the Seurat painting can be simplified to a bag of sprinkles, or the Magritte as neat rows of Isotype-looking gentlemen. It’s not a matter of either-or — beauty is where you find it. I think this is part of the reason why the debate over more or less beauty in functional, orderly works like data visualizations will continue for a long time. It’s all subjective: some people share the same opinion of what’s good/appropriate/beautiful, others do not. Perhaps the difference is when that “beauty” starts to encroach on function and hide or distort the information presented.

Andy KirkMarch 7th, 2013 at 10:12 am

Hi Michael, thank you for your comment and you are spot on – there is potential great value of this kind of chaos-sense-making mindset at an earlier stage. As for the beauty debate, absolutely right about the subjectivity – I think that human/flaw introduces so much interest for me to this field. You can’t box it in. You can’t answer every question nor propose every rule with true conviction or confidence. The pursuit for perfection is essentially an elusive and asymptotic (is that a word?!) endeavour.