Walking into The Drawing Center’s exhibition Please Make This Look Nice: The Graphic Design Process as an Act of Drawing, it’s easy to feel as if you’ve taken a wrong turn to a secret underground design studio where earnest graphic designers are secretly pumping out all the world’s work—and that’s a good thing. “Spontaneity and messiness are part of the point,” says curator Peter Ahlberg, principal of AHL&CO.

“Design is usually seen as a very finished, refined thing. I think that to people who aren’t familiar with what goes on behind the scenes of design, this will really be illuminating as to the chaos behind the finished product.”

The internal (and aesthetic) chaos at the heart of Please Make This Look Nice creates a kinetic sense of energy rarely found in traditionally mounted shows. The exhibition is divided into multiple areas, the first of which is devoted to four microsite exhibitions that represent the traditional stages of the design process. Works from the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography are presented first to evoke a pre-digital/fine arts understanding of design, highlighting hand lettering, tracing paper, and hand-drawn grids. The second features collages from artist John Gall as an exploration of form, color, and texture, followed by selections from Experimental Jetset to represent modeling, prototyping, and photography. Finally, Paul Sahre’s screenprinted make-readies will be on view in the final week as a representation of work that’s just one last step away from being finished.

But the beating heart of the exhibition is an ever-changing wall of work created by guest designers as part of a sort of rotating, daily artist-in-residence program where participants come in for eight hours at a time to essentially perform a live-action version of their process. Designers like Joe Newton, Small Stuff studio, Alex Stikeleather, and Zipeng Zhu interpret prompts like, “Explore dominant ideas found in The Drawing Center’s mission statement (i.e. drawing as primary, dynamic, etc.) in either a poster or motion graphic format,” or “Research traditional forms and applications of drawing (historical or otherwise) that might be considered “relaxant” to a graphic designer (i.e. prehistoric cave drawings; tattoos; calligraphy; anatomical drawings; etc).” As it’s created, the work is projected onto a screen in the studio and then added to the wall, which serves as a living catalogue of the design process.

The real question, according to Ahlberg (who also wrote the exhibition’s companion book, published by Rizzoli and featuring interviews with design luminaries like Milton Glaser and Michael Bierut), is “what are designers making when they are making things?” For Ahlberg, the surprising element of the show has been getting a glimpse into the multidimensional and genre-spanning way designers think, and how their personal preferences inform their work.

“When I started this project,” says Ahlberg, “I thought it would be easy to break people down into camps, and the more I talked to people the less and less these roles became defined. At the end of the day, the design process is so rooted in personal quirks. The reason the finished project ends up as it does is tied to these personal idiosyncrasies.” One of Ahlberg’s favorite examples is Carin Goldberg, who spent her time in the studio hand-embroidering hotel stationery, explaining that embroidery mirrors the drawing process but forces her to slow down and really consider what she’s creating.

For the casual observer, Please Make This Look Nice is a rare glimpse into the ephemeral state between idea (or assignment) and finished product. “So much of this project came out of what I felt like was a real gap in how design is taught,” Ahlberg theorized. “You’re shown the best logos, the best posters, then told to create. I suspect a big part of that is how the process of design is usually presented. The logical version of the process is what you show to the client, but there’s so much more to it.”

Please Make This Look Nice runs through March 20, 2016, at The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, NYC.