A few years ago, I was doing a walk-through with a client when I came upon their beautifully arranged bookshelf. My first thought was, "Pretty!" My second was, "I wonder if they can easily find their books." I had seen this rainbow organizing arrangement frequently in the media and online, but this was my first encounter "in the wild."
Naturally curious, I remarked on the beauty of the bookshelf that had been so artfully arranged for them and asked if they could easily find books when needed. I no longer remember the exact answer, but I recall that it was not a resounding yes. I wasn't surprised.
Here's the thing about rainbow organizing. It works well for some, but not all, situations.
Humor me as we conduct a little experiment. Close your eyes and visualize three books that you own. What comes to mind first: categories, words, colors, or perhaps even size? Now imagine you asked someone to retrieve those books. How would you describe them?
"It's the bright orange one. There's also a knight in shining armor on the cover."
"It's Conquering Chronic Disorganization by Judith Kolberg. Over by the C's."
"I can't remember the name or color, but I know it's on the bottom right side of the bookshelf, near the other organizing books."
(Some readers might have to get a little imaginative with this exercise. If the bookshelf is overflowing, there might be piles of books scattered throughout the home. If that's the case, imagine that you only have as many books as fit on the bookshelves.)
With that exercise, you can see that it's not so black and white. There are basic organizing tenants, but how we group items might vary from person to person. I set up systems for clients that make the most sense to them, not me or anyone else. So if your brain remembers colors before words or categories, then organizing by color can be a great way to find what you need quickly. It can be more nuanced, though, as most organizing is.
Here's a personal example. I don't typically remember authors or book titles, except some standouts such as Dostoevsky's fantastic book, Crime and Punishment. Sometimes I remember color before anything else—for instance, Judith Kolberg's book. I just so happen to remember the words because it's a classic, and we share a first name. Even if that were not the case, though, it's hard to forget the cover's bright orange color. So you would think ROYGBIV would be an excellent system for me. In this particular case, it would work because the entire book is one solid color.
Here's a less cut and dry example: Driven to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey. I often forget the title and authors' names. Still, I distinctly remember tomato red and light blue being involved (as well as the fact that it's a book about ADHD).
I enjoy its aesthetically pleasing cover because although they rewrote it in 2011, it looks like it could be hot off the press today. I even mentioned it to a colleague once: "you know, the red one." So, one might conclude that I would do well to organize this book into a red category. Have a look at the accompanying photo. You'll see that the spine contains both white and olive backgrounds, not red or light blue. I would have hunted all over the red section exasperatedly thinking, "I know it's around here somewhere!". I probably would have given up long before remembering to look in the white or green section. So if you're organizing your bookshelf by color, it's more important to remember spine color than those on the front cover, even though the latter might be easier to recall.
So let's go back to your visualization and check your recall. Did your memory serve you well, or were you thrown off by mismatched colors on the spine and front cover? If the latter, rainbow organizing might sound like a great idea but serve as an impediment to finding what you need.
Let's move this conversation to the closet, where rainbow organizing might be less contentious. Let's take shirts, for instance. Most of us are no longer slaves to 80s fashion. (Well, at least those of us who are old enough to have experienced it the first time around.) So, unlike many books, our tops have matching sleeves and "front covers." It makes sense to sort by color, right? If you were to find me helping a client organize their closet, you would see me sorting by color at some point in the process. That sort might even stick around in the final edit. Again, it's more nuanced than at first blush (or merlot, if you're more of a Fall colors type).
In what type of climate do you live? Is it relatively temperate, or are there distinct seasons? Are you indoors 99% of the time, rendering weather patterns irrelevant? If you consistently wear the same types of clothes each day, then perhaps your first decision is what color you want to wear. In this case, organizing by colors of the rainbow makes a lot of sense.
If you or your geography experience temperature fluctuations, organizing by color first could waste time. Let's say you went to the black section of your closet. You would waste time scanning through all the short sleeves to find a thick, long sleeve shirt in the dead of winter. In this case, your first level of organization would be by clothing type, not by color.
There's value in grouping by color if that is a daily consideration. It also serves as a visual cue when you have too many of any particular category. My closet has one or two rainbows involved. But I typically would not organize every hanging item into one large rainbow unless that is the first decision a client makes when getting dressed in the morning.
So what's my verdict on rainbow organizing? I think it serves a purpose. If your brain first recalls objects by color, ROYGBIV might be just the right solution. If not, please don't feel pressured to keep up with the organizing Joneses or whatever they're called these days.
Color can play an important role in sorting objects, but only if it gets you to the desired result of finding and putting away those objects as quickly as possible.
If you have a rainbow bookshelf that is working well, by all means, stick to it. There's no need to waste time fixing something that serves you well. I bet your bookshelf is a beautiful sight to behold!
If you find yourself swearing every time you try to locate a book, then it's time to dismantle the system. You can then sort by genre, alphabet, or even the Dewey Decimal System! (I've worked with quite a few librarians over the years.) Whatever your system, it needs to work for you and anyone else who accesses those items frequently. You want to work with, not against, your natural sense of organization. Now, who's ready to tackle those stuffed bookshelves and overflowing closets?
Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.