Think Before You Knoll

Knolling is a super popular aesthetic conceit masquerading as an organizational tool. Adam Savage has encouraged hundreds of fans to knoll. Whole Instagram empires are devoted to knolling everything from survival gear to charcuterie. Knolling is simply putting like objects together on flat surfaces and squaring them relative to each other and their nearby environment. The technique has come to be seen as a habit of a highly efficient and organized maker of things, but it is important to consider its utility before ordering those custom screened “Make America Knoll Again” tees.

A page from Tom Sachs' Ten Bullets Zine describing knolling
A page from Tom Sachs’ Ten Bullets Zine describing knolling

The term knolling was coined by a janitor, Andrew Kromelow, while he was working in the Eames furniture studio. At the end of each day he would organize tools and materials so they looked nice and neat. This was done for the appearance of organization, and not organization itself. This was not the action of someone intending to make tomorrow’s work more efficient, this was the action of someone whose job it was to make things appear tidy.

Organization is not any arbitrary low entropy state; it’s contextual. Organization is not a monolithic process that can be applied to any system thereby improving it. Imagine knolling a deck of cards before parsing them out to play poker.

Organization, especially for the physical manufacture of objects, needs to be done holistically with the intention of solving problems relevant to the overall goal of getting a task accomplished. This comment from the Lego Stackexchange sums it up:

Knolling is organization taken to extremes. It’s based on aesthetic principles and not efficiency.

My advice for keeping organized while building a project is to plan out your organizational system in the same way you plan out the method of fabrication. Break the large task of organizing all of your materials and fasteners into discrete steps and create an action plan for each. Gather resources that can help collect things like tiny screws on the fly and keep them around the shop. I like having a wide variety of 3mil zip top bags, nesting bins, and jewelry trays on hand to gather my necessary components and lay them out before a build. I like having separate bins for things that are waiting to be added on to an item (like screws and wing nuts for bolting a mold together) and ones that have just come off that may need some post-processing before they’re back in a known good state.

I’m not anti-knolling, despite appearances. I like it when things look pretty. I’m glad people are interested in organization. However, knolling is not a universal solution that improves efficiency wherever it goes. It has a context. It’s good for visually confirming the state of a project. It is a method for getting estimates on the proportions of different numbers of components relative to each other. It’s fine for counting up numbers of components to confirm they’re all there, though I’d advise keeping a count on paper and arranging the parts into piles or buckets to save space.

I’ve found that lean manufacturing evangelists are great at diving down deep to explore contextually appropriate organizational systems. This one is so simple and so effective it could have come right out of a time and motion studies handbook:

So, friends, knoll if you must. Knoll to your heart’s content, but recognize that looking tidy and having purpose may not be the same thing. The extra time you spend squaring up your Pentax Smcp-fa 31mm F/1.8 to your Cartoni L100 Lambda Nodal Swing Head might be better used taking photographs.

Leader photograph by Dwight Eschliman