The first time I heard author Daniel Pink speak about creativity was in 2003. As a futurist, he projected the employment challenges society would face because the jobs we’d steadily relied on were quickly becoming anything but. Roles that were “routine, rule-based, single discipline and managed” were disappearing, or at least becoming less important. Even two decades ago, the fields of accounting, law, manufacturing and retail were feeling this impact. In Pink’s words, work in the 21st century would be conceptual, empathic and big picture—perhaps not surprisingly, the very traits of creativity that make us distinctly human.
As an architect, I practice in a field where such creativity is paramount. To address critical issues from environmental impact and human health to urban integration and social inclusivity, creative individuals and teams are essential. This demand for ingenuity, however, is not specific to just the arts. Corporations have long leveraged creative skillsets to drive innovation and differentiation in their products. At the time I was listening to Pink’s predictions for the future, Stanford University’s d.school was forging its existence, helping people unlock their creative potential to tackle some of the messiest problems in healthcare, education and social innovation.
This necessity for multi-faceted creativity in the workplace has led NBBJ to various cross-disciplinary collaborations over the past years. Our primary intent for such exposure has been to improve how our ideas help organizations perform at their highest level. In a recent research partnership with Kristen Dong and Tyler Sprague at the University of Washington, we collectively pursued a deeper understanding of creativity to specifically guide how NBBJ designs the spaces and relationships that allow people to do their best thinking. The following post outlines our process and findings on how to create ideal platforms for generating ideas.
But First, Why Design for Creativity?
In an ideas-based economy, competing with the best thinking starts with offering environments to attract the best thinkers and provoke the best thoughts. It doesn’t stop there. Creative employees are not only more effective workers—they also tend to be happier people. Employees with creative agency report higher productivity and fulfillment as well as higher retention rates. As an innately human characteristic shared by cultures around the world, creativity also fosters an inclusive mindset. Like the “yes, and” of improv, it supports thinking that is open to new and different perspectives. An environment that encourages these benefits is one worth getting right.
Approach and Learnings
For the sake of our exercise, we defined creativity through the lens of the Alternative Uses Test, designed by J.P. Guilford in 1967. Given creativity is difficult to measure and evaluate—and that many we interviewed stated they were not “creative” types—we inquired about tasks related to creativity in addition to direct evaluations, such as open-ended problem solving ability. We also utilized a mixed-methods study to make sure our quantitative and qualitative data supported each other.
The study focused on 36 different social and spatial factors in workspaces. It included questions regarding behavioral outcomes prior to work-from-home conditions demanded by Covid-19. Following the quantitative evaluation, we interviewed a smaller group of participants for qualitative insights. Although unintended, our research efforts coincided with the very beginning of the pandemic. The impact of remote work and distanced interactions yielded a condition that enabled us to explore creativity through a narrowed—but no less complicated—lens.
Finding 1: Regardless of the Workplace Setting—Whether in the Office or at Home—Control Remains Important
The pandemic certainly accelerated discussions happening prior to Covid-19 around what a workplace should be. The importance of choice in the workplace—how space is physically used and the behaviors around those uses—remains fundamental to employee satisfaction and performance, whether remote or in an office. The work-from-home scenario surprisingly didn’t solve the issue of control—while people had greater autonomy over their direct atmosphere (i.e. temperature, lighting, noise, posture, dress), they had less influence over their periphery (i.e. housemates, access to the outdoors, room proportion, furniture options).
Datapoint: Those with high agency to adapt their space were the best performers in work-from-home; those that had low agency fared the worst. Study participants with low design agency in their space were poor performers across all behavioral outcomes.
Potential: Design for Convenience in the Hybrid Workplace
- Easily accessible temperature and lighting controls provide an office convenience that is often an afterthought in a home environment.
- Wheeled, modular furniture is an inexpensive, low-tech means to allow for a variety of configurations and greater sense of control.
Furniture that allows for multiple configurations, and easily controlled lighting and temperature, contribute to a sense of agency that helps to enhance performance.
Finding 2: Perspective Matters, Everywhere
How you—and others—literally see ideas offers a unique prompt difficult to achieve in the virtual world. Per our research, displaying ideas in various ways appeared to inspire divergent thinking, boost collaboration, clarify vision, and enhance innovation. This finding, however, wasn’t limited solely to moveable partitions and animated walls. Whether remote or in-person, interactions that are familiar or static can limit the way we stretch our thinking. However, per our research, it appears that exposure to different stages of development, life issues and communication styles initiated important mind shifts by introducing new vantage points, whether socially or physically.
Datapoint: Caregivers who lived with families reported the highest creativity among all participant demographics. Those that lived alone struggled. As trying as it was for many of us to balance work with caregiving, this activity appeared to provide an unforeseen benefit.
Potential: Design for Multi-Generational Relationships
- While remote work has been difficult for many, participants noted this has allowed for more flexible schedules and improved individual problem solving.
- Peer-only relationships can be limiting. Encourage cross-generational groups that are not solely project- or department-specific.
- Opportunities to teach, coach, or care for others may provide important outlets for staff not yet engaged in an organization or community.
While remote work has been challenging, the opportunity it provided for caregivers living with families to engage in intergenerational interaction resulted in increased creativity. Designing for multi-generational relationships and mentorship in the workplace can provide similar benefits.
Finding 3: Despite Technological Advancements That Improve How We Interact, Creative Thinking is Still Heavily Influenced by Our Physical Surroundings
Most participants reported struggling to match their former performance prior to remote work and learning. 50% shared a workspace with others, and 70% said mental health issues impacted their ability to learn. Generally, interviewees felt less effective in productivity, team problem solving, time management and open-ended work (e.g. writing an essay). Individual problem solving was improved, implying that isolation from others was helpful for this type of thinking. In our qualitative interviews, people voiced a need for more space, separate space and minimal distractions as critical to improve their creative thinking.
Datapoint: According to the survey, the best place to work was a dedicated office room with furniture that allowed for movement and platforms for ideas. These spaces, however, were the least common spatial features in participant workspaces. Conversely, the worst place to work in was a kitchen without windows or spaciousness. While having these elements didn’t contribute to better performance, lacking them significantly affected participants.
Potential: Design “More” Space
Expansive spaces can boost creativity. An element as simple as the height above you can have an impact on how a space supports ideation or focus. Whether at home or in a formal “workplace” this sense of expansiveness can reduce stress. Therefore, for employees who are primarily remote, it is important for employers to understand how constraints of their remote space may limit their contributions. This may suggest organizational support through a “home office in a box” kit.
- Increase perceived dimensions through mirrors, natural lighting, and high ceilings to make spaces feel larger than the floor plan allows.
- Create comfort through contrast by offering differing scales and juxtapositions. A small space next to a large open area can make an individual feel more comfortable (the strategy of prospect and refuge) while making the overall experience feel more expansive.
- Build in separate space to rest or step away from work. Research suggests that taking a break in a direct workspace rather than outside of it are not as restful or beneficial to creativity.
A feeling of expansiveness can increase creativity. High ceilings, differing scales and contrasting spaces all contribute to an environment that is more conducive to ideation or focus.
Potential: Design for Movement
Numerous studies show movement enhances creativity by boosting cognition, learning, memory and decision-making. Even in confined conditions, workplaces can encourage people to move in different ways. By using standing desks and yoga ball seating, participants responded with the highest creativity and problem-solving abilities.
- Quiet flooring allows occupants to tap their feet or fidget without disturbing neighbors.
- Workspaces that are separate from eating and relaxing areas will force movement, but it is important to consider transition spaces as well. These areas must be inviting while encouraging a quick “mental break.”
- Consider the difference between a prompt and an inconvenience. If spaces are too troublesome to travel through regularly, occupants will find a workaround or skip movement altogether.
From small-scale solutions like flooring that muffles the sound of tapping feet, to inviting transition spaces that encourage a mental break, promoting movement enhances creative thinking. However, if spaces are inconvenient or hinder travel, they may have the opposite effect.
Creativity remains a trait that is hard to define when present, but highly noticeable when missing. Factors of personal perception, background and area of study will continue to frame how individuals and organizations reference this elusive term. Yet new research is enabling designers to identify techniques that will encourage diverse thinking through environments and behaviors. As expected, the spaces and dynamics around us remains critical, but so do the people we interact with outside of our jobs, especially in the post-Covid workplace. As companies look for consistent differentiation in their work and products, these creative advantages may not only help them recruit and retain the best talent, it may also offer holistic wellness while delivering better financial and cultural returns.
- Future Research Centers: The Place of Creativity and Innovation. Bisadi, M., Mozaffar, F., & Hosseini, S. B. (2012). Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 68, 232–243.
- Creative environments for design education and practice: A typology of creative spaces. Thoring, K., Desmet, P., & Badke-Schaub, P. (2018). Design Studies, 56, 54–83.
- Literature review and interviews on the impact of space on creativity using previously defined space typologies. Thoring, K. C., Guerreiro Goncalves, M., Mueller, R. M., Badke-Schaub, P. G., & Desmet, P. M. A. (2017).