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October 29, 2010

Why Space Matters – An Argument For Truly Creative Environments and Against Cube Culture

  SpacesImage

Which of these images is not like the others?

(answer at the end of the post)

 

If one wants to give more than lip service to the concepts of collaborative creativity and innovation acceleration, then caring about the “micro-environment” of the individuals involved in those processes is required. "Micro-environments" are the spaces, both individual and common, over which we have control to some extent, and are different in the level of effort required to change them from the macro-environments of the location that surrounds them (ranging anywhere from a city to a scenic wilderness). That thoughtful engagement with and design of the immediate work environment must go far beyond many organizations’ concepts of trendy design directions or gimmicks like indoor slides.

In his book "Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention", Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote that:

"Even the most abstract mind is affected by the surroundings of the body.  No one is immune to the impressions that impinge on the senses from the outside.  Creative individuals may seem to disregard their environment and work happily in even the most dismal surroundings … But in reality, the spatiotemporal context in which creative persons live has consequences that often go unnoticed." (p.127)

This group of “creative individuals” is not limited to “artistic” creativity, but to the broader definition of creative thinking and action that also includes science, technology and the practical arts.  One might argue that these, even more so than “fine art,” are collective creative endeavors where idea and information exchange and innovation often grows much faster in specific “hot spots” where the work of one person builds on that of others.

So what creates – or reveals -  those “hot spots,” the elusive right place at the right moment for the right pursuit?

  • Why Italy and Renaissance art?
  • Why Paris in the early 1900s for writers?  Or why Gertrude Stein’s salon in particular?
  • Why the University of Illinois and the physics of superconductors in the 1950s?
  • Why Silicon Valley and the personal computer in the 1980s and the Internet in the 1990s?

It would be overly simplistic to say there is only one factor that drives the rise to greatness of density of creative thought for certain geographic locations (macro-environments) for specific endeavors, but as to why a particular place (macro or micro) may accelerate and spread creative work within its boundaries, Csikszentmihalyi said:

"Certain environments have a greater density of interaction and provide more excitement and a greater effervescence of ideas; therefore, they prompt the person who is already inclined to break away from conventions to experiment with novelty more readily than if he or she had stayed in a more conservative, more repressive setting."

So if one theme extracted might be about the density of appropriate interaction presented to the “prepared mind,” what might be some current real world examples of how this can be taken to the micro-environment level of the common and personal spaces we inhabit in the structures in which we work?

 

Here are two.


1. Randy Pausch’s Stage 3 Laboratory in Wean Hall at Carnegie Mellon University (lower left image at the beginning of this post)

This is about setting the stage for fun, comfort and contentedness to fuel collaborative work from teams with diverse disciplines who don’t usually work together. And this does not have to happen in an expensive, high design space.  It can be in a humble university lab.

"Instead of a traditional laboratory, the Stage 3 lab more closely resembled a toy store. The space was awash with color and filled with games, toys and stuffed animals – lots of stuffed animals, some hanging from the ceiling.  Randy had wisely banished the use of fluorescent lights, so the colorful stuffed animals were illuminated by incandescent lamps.  The theme was clearly one of fun, comfort and contentedness. … Clearly Randy intended his lab to inspire creativity and out of the box thinking. – “The Comet and the Tornado” by Don Marinelli (p 37)

 

2. The Atrium at Pixar Animation Studios (upper left image at the beginning of this post)

 This is about maximizing the opportunity for the informed serendipitous encounter.

"Our building, which is Steve Job's brainchild, is another way we get people from different deprtments to interact.  Most buildings are desgined for some functional purpose, but ours is structured to maximize inadvertant encounters.  At its center is a large atrium, which contains the cafeteria, eeting rooms, bathrooms, and mailboxes.  As a result, everyone has strong reasons to go there repeatedly during the course of the workday. It's hard to describe just how valuable the resulting chance encounter are." - Ed Catmull in "How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity" in Harvard Business Review

 

Takeaways Beyond the Common Space

It is important to note that neither of these examples is about creating chaotic environments where one has to be an aggressive extrovert to survive. Nor are they about taking away personal and quiet spaces with a practice some call "hotelling" where individuals have no assigned personal space, but "check-in" each day for an open desk with their personal materials kept in a box on a shelf they move around each day.  (Thanks to Allison Arieff for pointing out the “hotelling” example, and to Michelle Kaufmann for reminding me about the need for beautiful open personal space.) What they are about is both personalization and optimization of the prepared mind for inspired moments as well as the chance encounter and exchange.

 

Points beyond physical attributes of the micro-environment

1. The importance of bringing a prepared mind

It is essential to have a “prepared mind” if an environment is to have a chance to impact creativity.

“…what seems to happen is that when persons with prepared minds find themselves in beautiful settings, they are more likely to find new connections among new ideas, new perspectives on issues.”  - M. Csikszentmihalyi (p 136)

2. How you do what you do

How you spend time in the right setting also has impact on the creative process. Sitting may be acceptable, but being able to walk around seems to be even better. Why?

"… when involved in a semiautomatic activity that takes up a certain amount of attention, while leaving some of it free to make connections among ideas below the threshold of conscious intentionality.  Devoting full attention to a problem is not the best recipe for having creative thoughts.” - M. Csikszentmihalyi

3. The personal space

Beyond the common space designed for the serendipitous event,  personal micro-environments, the immediate setting in which a person works, can and should be transformed into a way that those spaces enhance personal creativity.  Successful creative problem solvers manage to give their surroundings a personal setting that reflects the rhythm of their thoughts and habits. What you place around yourself whould reflect what you intend to become or create.

"In order to think more creatively, imaginatively and strategically, we need to cultivate a more intuitive, metaphorical attention that calls preeminently on the right hemisphere of the brain … The parallel challenge for leaders and organizations is to create work environments that free and encourage people to focus in absorbed ways without constant interruptions.” – Tony Schwartz in “The Way We're Working Isn't Working"

4. The exterior macro-environment

 External macro-environments set the social, cultural, and institutional contexts of our lives. Most of us can’t do that much about changing them on a daily basis.  However, access – even on an irregular basis – to environments that present unusual and complex sensory experiences (Big Sur, Grand Tetons, the beach - as in upper left image at beginning of post) can be very beneficial to the creative process.

"...one’s attention is jolted out of its customary grooves and seduced to follow the novel and attractive patterns.  However, the sensory menu does not require a full investment of attention; enough psychic energy is left free to pursue, subconsciously, the problematic content that requires a creative formulation.”  - M Csikszentmihalyi  (p 138)

 

The Takeaway

The belief that the immediate physical environment deeply impacts our thoughts and feelings, and hence our work, is held by many cultures - and ours should be no exception.  Building micro-environments that up the odds of creative thinking and work , for both the individual and the group, needs to be a thoughtful process that goes beyond surface trends and gimmicks.

And to answer the question posed at the beginning of this post: "Which of the 4 images is not like the others?"  The answer is the lower right cube farm.  It is neither a micro or macro environment that enhances creative collaboration.  Favicon

 

Additional Resources

The Economist: "Fun and the Office Environment"

Randy Pausch's office and lab

Michelle Kaufmann's post on Twitter office space - a mix of private and public spaces

Fast Company: "Where Work Is Play"

Steven Johnson in GOOD Magazine on future working spaces

Business Pundit: "8 Coolest Office Spaces Ever"

Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker (added Nov 5) "Why your bosses want to turn your new office into Greenwich Village"

 

 

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Liz Gebhardt


  • © Amanda Jones
    Digital and traditional (live & broadcast) media/ marketing strategist and producer living at the intersection of Web meets (live) World. More than two decades of experience in building media and technology businesses, content programming and distribution, brand stories and integrated communications campaigns.

    Believes that strategy is all talk unless it can be executed in a way that delivers on both the creative and business promises. Embraces the role of navigator of the uncharted path vs. passenger along the known road.