Designing for Creativity, Productivity

Where do you do get your best ideas? This is a question that my friend and associate, Roger Firestien, used to ask in his presentations, and one which I frequently pose. The responses range from, “In the car,” “on the boat,” “at the coffeeshop,” “in the outdoors” or “in the bathroom.” The answers are varied except for one commonality (and no, it has nothing to do with “running water”). Rarely does anyone say, “at work” or “the office.” How about you?

If you’re like the vast majority of the people we talk with, you’re not getting great ideas while sitting at your desk.

So get up and go somewhere else. Or fix the place in which you’re thinking.

This article will help you recognize why you’re not getting your best ideas where you’d hope to, and will focus on helping you to create a space where you can be more productive in creating new and improved ideas.

Scanning the research, the bad news is that there is almost nothing which tells us what the ideal physical environment for creativity and innovation looks like. The good news is that this gives us total freedom to create one that works for YOU. (Note: there is plenty of research that tells us about psychological environments, climates and cultures that support creativity, but that’s for another day).

Consider that some well-known writers have created physical environments that facilitated their innovativeness as described by George Kneller in his book, THE ART AND SCIENCE OF CREATIVITY: “Schiller, for example, filled his desk with rotten apples; Proust worked in a cork-lined room; Dr. Johnson surrounded himself with a purring cat, orange peel and tea; Hart Crane played jazz loud on a Victrola… An extreme case is Kant, who would work in bed at certain times of the day with the blankets arranged round him in a way he had invented himself.” Don’t forget Henry David Thoreau’s cabin described in WALDEN.

Some people go outside of their office to do their creativity work. Einstein came up with his greatest theories while sailing. Edison, a man with over 1,000 patents to his credit, would go down to the dock and fish (or at least pretend to). Robert Lutz, the recently retired president and vice chairman of Chrysler Corporation, was driving the back roads of southeastern Michigan in a V-8 powered sports car when he conceptualized using their new V-10 truck engine in a new sports car as a way to add excitement to their product line. This eventually turned into the hot V-10 powered Dodge Viper sports car. As for me, I wrote most of this paper in my head while swimming laps (Mozart also was fond of taking exercise).

Rotten apples anyone? Perhaps not, but clearly the physical environment in which one thinks is important for sustaining creative thinking efforts. Although there is no research that shows what is The Best Physical Environment to support innovation, there is research that shows that people learn and think better in physical environments that suit their personal preference. And there is research that shows that environments can stimulate creativity.

Certainly the opposite case is also true, that physical environments can stifle creativity as well. You need only look at your own personal experience about the places where you can’t function because of noise, light, distractions, discomfort, not well equipped, and so forth. For me, all it takes is a phone. Whether it’s ringing (huge distraction) or not (distraction in the form of calls I need to make), working next to Bell’s invention makes it very hard for me to create new ideas, new proposals, new articles, and new products.

So besides eliminating the telephone (IF that works for you), what can you do to create the perfect environment? The first step is to recognize the elements that you need in order to be comfortable enough — or uncomfortable enough, if that works for you — to let your brain work free from distractions. Rita Dunn, Kenneth Dunn and Gary Price created an assessment called the Productivity Environmental Preference Survey (PEPS) that takes a look at individual preferences along several dimensions related to physical environment. Take a look at the following physical dimensions to see which ones describe your ideal environment:

  • Light (prefer dim or bright)
  • Noise (prefer quiet or sound)
  • Design (prefer formal or informal)
  • Temperature (prefer cool or warm)
  • Peers (prefer working alone or with others)
  • Authority Figures (want present or not present)
  • Mobility (prefer movement or not)
  • Intake (prefer eating/drinking or not)
  • Time of day (prefer morning, afternoon or evening)