Observations of Order

An Investigation into ‘Order’ and ‘Chaos’ within the context of design.

Mark O'Neill
11 min readAug 25, 2020



The forthcoming essay will be written as an investigation into what we consider as Order (a capital ‘O’ will be used to revert to the theme throughout) and Chaos (capitalised for the same reasons), to understand our need for both, I will initially start by identifying the origins of each, their connections to each other and examples of their presence on a wider scale. From there, links taken from such philosophies might inform the reasons behind our urge to establish Order when confronted with Chaos and to see where these instincts lead us. Order will be observed in design through various scenarios that ideally will assist the pursuit of this essay by determining what level of Order is positive, progressive or healthy and when might it go too far. This exploration will aim to act as a guide to first, comprehend the terms of Order and Chaos in their diversity of forms, then eventually to advise correct treatment of the two within the realm of design as well as in consideration of life as a whole.

Understanding Order

Systems, sequences, sorting, setting-up and straight lines are many of the connotations you might visualise to represent Order. We think of organisation, structures put in place, security in what should stay the same; we rely on timetables, street names and measurements to remain fixed, to maintain the values they held yesterday, we trust them and like them right where they are and have always been. It’s frightening to imagine what life might be like without these constants, the uncertainty and instability that would ensue if we weren’t insulated by our clocks, graphs and forecasts — this underlying precariousness is what we know as Chaos and it may just be the reason we look for Order. Canadian Professor and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson in a podcast (2017) uses the metaphor of skating on an icy lake to illustrate this relationship of Order and Chaos, above, you feel safe and therefore are calm, knowing (or more accurately: believing) that the ice underfoot is solid and you can trust it whilst continuing to skate peacefully and leisurely — that is unless the frozen lake beneath breaks — along with any trust or security you previously might have placed with it. If upended, plunged to the flip side of the expected, what was once secure, tranquil and trusted can, in a shocking instant, transform into disorder, before you know it — all you believed and could enjoy whilst on the ice, (the order in your life) has shattered, into chaos. This analogy stems back to likely a more familiar image that further supports such frameworks, doing so through a wider notion; the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang: a circle made up of a black and white serpent each with the opposite-shaded dot in their centre. The symbol focuses on dualism forming the whole, the interdependence that each side has on the other — there is no high without low, for example, translations of yin and yang into English are not so immaculately literal and so we typically hear ‘positive and negative’ or ‘masculine and feminine’ — Professor Peterson (2017) considers a more faithful conversion to be, however, “Order and Chaos”. Having established such, in regards to how we might digest the encompassing concept of yin and yang, a look back to the potential chaos beneath the ice can now be simplified into the black dot within the white serpent — the risk of chaos amongst order.

In the novel: ‘Moby-Dick; or, The Whale’ (Melville, 1815) we are given an image of beauty and stillness of which the ocean appears to us from above its depths, whilst reminded of the unknown dangers that lie beneath the surface:

“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure”.

The writer cleverly concludes the unsettling sentence with the words ‘loveliest tints of azure’ as if to discharge or pretend our underlying fears aren’t there, it seems to draw us back to our human bliss in ignorance; the pretty portrayal of colour evokes to me the modern couple blissfully shopping for bathroom tiles or a new tone for their feature wall. It resembles our society of social structures and systems that protect, distract and hide us from attacks of terror and disaster. More substantially, this depiction is a reminder to us, viewing the vastness of the sea’s surface, that it is indeed only the surface and that the boundless unknown that lurks below is always there — we had better stay shielded from such Chaos. Melville continues with the analogy, with comparisons of the Earth with its safety of land, surrounded by the terrible sea (similarly to the previous) as well as a challenge to us to look inwards at ourselves. If in truth, this story of Order and Chaos can be seen in all aspects of life, to the scale of our planet with its land and sea and divided hemispheres, it equally should be projected even down to the intricacies of the body.

The theory that our brains are split into two interdependent hemispheres, both halves having distinct regions of characteristics and specialised functions, was first brought forth in the 1960s through research by Nobel Prize winner, psychobiologist Roger Sperry (Pietrangelo, 2017). Suggestions that the left side predominantly displays attributes of logical, sequential and linear thinking as opposed to the right which manifests in more imaginative, intuitive and creative tendencies is another hint to these natural themes of Order (being left brain) and Chaos (right). Note that each side acts with interdependence on its opposite (similarly to the yin and yang), it’s interesting to imagine how one half might function without its counterpart.

Fascinated from an early age to understand how her brain differed to her brother’s who is schizophrenic, Jill Bolte Taylor (2009) was working at Harvard’s brain research centre as a neuroanatomist when she unexpectedly was hit with a rare form of stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. What soon unfolded for her was the experience of thinking and living with only her open, emotional, experiential (Orderless) side of the brain, and emerged from it years later; describing it as “Nirvana”. In addition to the major benefits of organisation, analysis and memory we are aware of with Order, what also is included in the left brain is our ego and its unpleasant displays of spitefulness, arrogance and jealousy for example — as well as the self-inflictions of incessant anxiety and fear. It was the rediscovery of these concerning personality traits that Dr Taylor realised there was a liberation and peace to being purely immersed in the freeing chaos of the right brain. Despite her reminiscence of such joy discovered with the stroke, Dr Taylor equally acknowledges the vital utility of the left brain after her pursuit of recovery in her book ‘My Stroke of Insight’. For as much she expresses her adoration for “the attitude, openness, and enthusiasm with which my right mind embraces life”, she places that same value in the left side, saying

“Please remember that this is the character I just spent the better part of a decade resurrecting. My left mind is responsible for taking all of that energy, all of that information about the present moment, and all of those magnificent possibilities perceived by my right mind, and shaping them into something manageable”.

We learn that the structure and rationale of our left brain enables chaos to remain sustainable and function to a healthy level without losing control. Dr Taylor’s analyses as well as of course just her recounts of such an extraordinary experience are incredibly helpful in diagnosing our need for Order and the essential purpose it has to life.

Design as Order

Observations so far explored have been intentions to first: verify a genuine prevalence to the patterns of Order and Chaos, then to further this into investigating why these polar opposites exist so widely to the extent that our behaviours even perform within the same archetypes. To next consider the subject within the context of design, it’s best to imagine Order and thus Chaos in its visual form. To see something and label it as chaotic, likely stems from an intuition that connects Chaos to what we perceive as untidiness and therefore as mess. Whilst we all have varying standpoints of what we might define as mess, it is undeniable that that definition fundamentally is used to imply something is unclean (to the eye of the beholder), or in other-words: dirty. Early on in her book ‘Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo’, anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966) starts out with the articulation that what we regard as dirt (no matter its relativity of opinion) is essentially disorder. By disposition, we are programmed to avoid that which is dirty, innately, for example, we want to elude disease for our safety, so, evolutions from these instincts might lead us to why we have the urge to establish order.

“Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organise the environment”

— Douglas expands further from the initial assertion with what I take for an accurate depiction of the role of a designer. The expression “a positive effort to organise the environment” captures (in addition to her intentions) the intended aim of the collective designer whether they might be graphically laying out information to be absorbed in the medium of a poster or systemising visuals for the navigation of public transport. The purpose of design in its vast areas of specialisation shares the same ambition to improve peoples environments through expertly considered demonstrations of function and form.

Renowned for exactly such demonstrations of expertise; legendary German industrial designer Dieter Rams (Responsible for designing over 500 rigorously refined, timeless products under companies ‘Braun’ and ‘Vitsoe’) exemplifies how Order and the striving for the organisation of environments links directly to the foundational intentions of design. In his book written by Sophie Lovell ‘Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible’ (2011) he touches on his attitude at the outset of his career saying “I wanted to clean up, to get rid of the chaos” and “to tidy up people’s immediate environment”. Lovell elaborates on this, tying us back to the recurring themes so far discussed; that this determination to lessen the untidiness and Chaos of environments provides a motive to design, to create Order: “Much of his approach to design can be traced from a personal need for calm and order”. Interestingly, the reasoning behind what makes Dieter Rams such a master of design with his accomplished ability in restraint, reduction and refinement might lie in his total contempt towards clutter. Lovell makes note that significantly,

“Dieter Rams’ biggest dislike is ‘visual pollution’. It distresses him. For him, visual chaos places an equally disruptive and restrictive burden on our quality of life as the pollution of air water and the earth”.

Dislike and avoidance are likely formed from our innate fear of (as previously discussed) the ever eminent risk of Chaos, this fear, if natural, should, therefore, be argued as healthy. Whilst what drives Rams’ mastery of design through Order strongly relates to the distress visual Chaos causes him, his use of Order is perfected due to him knowing not to take too far puritanically.

Ominous Potential

To be fearful of something implies that you somewhat respect it — you want to run away from that which you fear, without this respect (essential to fear), it is instead disgust (Peterson 2017). Disgust is not something you run away from, it’s instead what you are motivated to completely eradicate. It seems Dieter Rams (2011) has respect for Chaos and is aware that strict eliminative convictions of Order through doctrines of function are unhealthy; such polarity and narrowness becomes too idealistic — a “straitjacket” in place of the celebration of the human. Fellow German and advocate of Order is great modernist architect Ludvig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), whose monumentally influential style of rigorous rationality and simplicity has, on one hand, amassed decades of praise, also has been on the receiving end of accusations that his idealisms went too far down the dangerous direction of totalitarianism. The controversial stance that Mies’s dedication to modernist purity indeed sympathised with authoritarian movements in Germany of the time (1933–1937) is voiced in the 1989 book by Elaine S. Hochman ’Architects of Fortune: Mies van der Rohe and the Third Reich’. Her strong views that such “idealism, deprecation of empirical reality, absolutism, and arrogance” supported the same principles of the Third Reich are matched with those of Roger Kimball (1989) in his critical review of the book where he counters her point with the argument that “what this peroration tokens is a complete inability to distinguish between genuine idealism and its perversion”. Kimball makes a vitally important case that we mustn’t jump so quickly to the incriminating labelling of Nazism that is too often an instant association from serious puritan idealism. In reality, Kimball additionally makes clear; “Mies was an architect while Hitler was a dictator in command of an entire nation”. He sets straight the fact that we are not aware of what Mies’s “vision of society” was, whilst we know all too well what Hitler’s vision looked like and that the Fiihrer’s ideas of “war” and “victory”(the topic extracted from the book) couldn’t have been more ominous, Mies’s ideas, on the contrary, were plainly aims to erect successful architecture.

Reflecting back now to Peterson’s observations of disgust, where in fact he makes such comments due to reading the book ‘Hitler’s Table Talk’; it is evident that the levels of Order that Mies strove for cannot be compared to the ferocity Hitler reached. Professor Peterson (2017) remarks with a conviction that Hitler was by all means “obsessed by order and cleanliness” and that this substantiated a paralleled “sensitivity to disgust”. This disgust manifested first, positively with public health initiatives, (increasing hygiene, using pesticides) however, soon rose to the horrors of him going on to ‘cleaning’ the mental hospitals, then concentration camps where similar prior pesticides were used in the gas chambers. While summoning up the dark past of the Third Reich is so disturbing even to contemplate, its awfulness evidences the dangerous potential of Order when taken to its farthest extremities and heightens the need for emphasis that balance is crucial.

Balancing Order and Chaos

After our observations so far into the overarching theme of Order and its intrinsic relationship with Chaos, it is very much apparent that reasonable balance of both elements is vital to keep in mind and that without having respect for one side, tyrannical potentials can emerge. Attempts to eradicate either side of Order or Chaos should not be worth deliberation once one has realised what is possible at the worst intensities. In a similar study of subject, Pawe􏰀l Rubinowicz (2000) comes to a corresponding conclusion in regards to Architecture:

“Elimination of chaos from the architectural composition causes “spatial boredom”. Elimination of geometric order causes the illegibility of compositions. Therefore, for a good quality of architectural space, the balance between order and chaos is necessary”.

He stresses the importance of this balance that we’ve mentioned throughout and makes it an integral requirement for “good quality of architectural space” — which could be reiterated as a requirement for “good design” as a whole. If we think in such a way when tackling a design brief or problem, we enable the inclusion of both the excitement and innovation of the unexpected along with the reliability and structure that comes with organisation. I believe that this awareness of Order and Chaos and understanding of what each represents in their various manifestations empowers us to utilise both as tools for purpose. The lessons that have come through greater insight into the connotations of Order mean we can better master how we gauge it against Chaos, we know that (as Professor Peterson reminds us, 2017)

“Too much order and this state (of Order) can become boring, restrictive or even repressive. Too little order and there’s not enough structure for anything to exist at all”.

Order, like design, plays an integral part in life’s operations; its structure, clarity and restraint cradles Chaos from its own longing to lose control, while, in return, enlivens Order with incentive.

Mark O’Neill

The UX Collective donates US$1 for each article published in our platform. This story contributed to Bay Area Black Designers: a professional development community for Black people who are digital designers and researchers in the San Francisco Bay Area. By joining together in community, members share inspiration, connection, peer mentorship, professional development, resources, feedback, support, and resilience. Silence against systemic racism is not an option. Build the design community you believe in.



Mark O'Neill

Designer / Chelsea College of Art Graduate