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Academics of Arrangement: Berkeley Prof Deciphers How and Why We Organize Things

December 14, 2015
by Lexi Pandell

Robert Glushko’s job is to think about the organization of, well, everything: Ikea, zoos, spice racks, even crime families. He tries to get at the concepts behind how and why we arrange things, and what makes certain arrangements better than others. Take a bus, for example, says the UC Berkeley School of Information professor—it’s really just a vehicle traveling on a series of points on a graph. “If you replaced it with a spaceship, it wouldn’t matter,” he says. The ideas behind plotting a route would be the same.

For millennia, the human species has organized things, whether it’s tidying cave dwellings or building cathedrals or filling out spreadsheets. But the study of organization, as Glushko has developed it, is new. His book, The Discipline of Organization, is now in its third edition and is taught in more than 50 schools in 18 countries. It covers material for architects, museum curators, English students, artists, designers, business managers, and more.

After joining the I School in 2002, Glushko inherited a run-of-the-mill course on information organization and retrieval, which included the standard library and computer-science textbooks. “This is supposed to be a school at the intersection of information, technology, and people, but this was a disjointed union, not an intersection,” he says.

Glushko had an epiphany in the middle of a lecture: He could reconcile the I School mission with his course through the lens of organizing everyday things. At that moment, he announced to his class that they would start over with the first lecture, ditching the old curriculum, and started picking apart ideas—like how theme parks are laid out, for instance. (Half his students thought they were witnessing a moment of genius, Glushko says. The other half assumed he’d had a nervous breakdown.) Some organization skills are innate, Glushko points out, but humans are naturally best at spatial memory—essentially, placing things in a specific location and remembering where they are. But that method has limits. It would be difficult, for example, to find much in the Library of Congress by memory alone.

By studying examples of organized collections (retail stores, spreadsheets, museums) and the ways they can be organized (“numeric, color, size, sleeve length, whatever”), we can determine what system or combination of systems will best solve our problems on a case-by-case basis. One chef may sort spices on a rack, while another prefers a lazy Susan; a bookworm may want their tomes organized alphabetically or by genre; animals at a zoo could be caged according to natural habitat or by species. So if there’s one universal concept to organizing, it’s that the organizer is just as important as the things that are being organized—there’s no one “right” way, because everyone is different.

This may seem obvious, but it could also explain the recent success of Marie Kondo’s internationally best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, whose enthusiasts join the cause with near cultlike zeal. Although Kondo, who was listed among Time’s 100 most influential people in 2015, dispenses object-specific organizing tips, such as how to tidy up sock drawers, at the core of her philosophy is the notion that you keep only things that “spark joy.”

“Kondo makes you feel good about organizing,” Glushko says. “It’s an improvement over a lot of the organizing industry out there. Rather than saying, ‘You’re a hoarder and you need more boxes from the Container Store,’ it’s about reflecting on individual objects.”

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