Puzzling it out: finding vital space in a cluttered world

The relentless temptations of our always-on world make it almost impossible to preserve the space to think. Almost

Here’s a lovely sentence: “In the end, we had pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained – oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn’t name.”

Isn’t that splendid? It’s from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. I noted it down years ago, I forget why. Perhaps because I have a thing for jigsaw puzzles. And maps. Still, unshackled from context, it has lingered in the back of my mind, popping up every now and then to seek new significance.

Like right now, for example: it describes, in words more poetic than I could ever hope to muster, the chaotic existence of the self-employed, work-from-home, toddler-raising, house-hunting, sleep-deprived designer.

Yes, this designer’s life is going through a particularly chaotic stretch of chaos.

There are a thousand little jobs screaming for attention. I have to be doing everything and being everywhere, all of the time. There is no way to focus on one thing for too long – it is a constant stream of diversions and distractions and emergencies (and, oh the humanity, potty training). This is what happens when you choose to put your work and your family life all in the one place.

I used to have this vision of a typical day: eat cornflakes, head upstairs, do a great big solid chunk of work for several hours, come downstairs, have tea, watch a spot of Columbo. This typical day has never happened. Professional and familial responsibilities blend and overlap and crash together. I’m up and down those stairs constantly, and I haven’t seen Peter Falk for months.

As a family, we kind of make it work. Tasks are carved into slabs that, with a bit of cajoling and coercion, find their way into a halfway reasonable schedule. But no matter how organised we are, these slabs will never tessellate nicely – slivers of time slip in between.

I have come to embrace these gaps. They are my friends. They are where I get things done. No longer available in great chunks, work has become this fragmented thing, sand that fills the spaces in between. A spot of networking here, a seed of a thought jotted there. Any period of spare time, seconds or minutes or hours, can be occupied by the doing of something.

For instance: I’m dashing about the kitchen, cooking my (Nigella’s) special (easy) chilli for the family. Between the moments of chopping and throwing and stirring, I’m able to: shoot off a couple of emails, tweak my blog, read the latest article about why designers should/shouldn’t learn to code.

For instance: I’ve arrived at the cinema a bit early, so I’m sitting in the dark, waiting for the endless parade of car adverts to begin. A perfect opportunity to clumsily doodle some ideas with my big fat finger onto my small slim phone. No wasted time at the concessions stand for me. Kia-Ora can wait.

For instance: I’m waiting to cross the road. I reckon I’ve got time to tweet a little self-promotion tweetlet before the green man appears. Always with my head down, looking at something, ignoring the oncoming traffic.

Every account needs checking, every idea needs to be poured out. Work is clawing at my back, demanding attention at all times, the ever-present internet offering the illusion of endless super-efficiency. There is no escape from the inbox, from the networking, from the opportunity to note and sketch and share and kvetch. I may not have named these emptinesses, these oddly-shaped countries, but I have rampaged across them and populated them with inefficient, twitchy little moments of activity that almost feel like they’re probably productive.

It sort of works. But it’s sort of incredibly very terrible as well. I don’t leave myself any moments to daydream, to stare into space, to look up. I don’t get to do nothing. And that’s what I need. I am perpetuating the chaos so that it is everywhere, all of the time.

So maybe I need to change my take on Eugenides’ sentence. Rather than reading it as a resigned shrug at the inevitability of mayhem, it is a challenge. I will ignore the gaps, I will leave them empty, gappy, voids into which calm may flow. It’s all about the puzzle. I will focus on piecing that puzzle together. The picture on the box, the one with the cornflakes and the Columbo, maybe that’s still in there somewhere. I’m going to put that together.
Let’s find some corners.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. See danielgray.com and @gray. Image: Sam Glynn. samglynn.co

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