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Space for creative thinking

Modern working practices make it more important than ever that firms can create working environments that foster collaboration and wellbeing

By Christine Kohlert and Scott Cooper

Edition 9 – December 2017 Pages 19-23

Tags: workplace design • collaborative work • creativity • wellbeing

The difference between churning out another aircraft engine on an assembly line and developing an engine that can help an airline do its job better is creativity. Creative knowledge work is flourishing. As algorithms and robots replace jobs once done by humans, companies look for ways to leverage the human brain to work on things the robots cannot do—like being creative in finding solutions to problems and in developing “innovations” in the form of new businesses, products, and services. The automation of mundane work activities unleashes tremendous opportunity for focusing workers creatively.

If robots can do most of the work to build the cars at an auto manufacturer, it frees up that company’s employees to think and create the next big thing. Maybe that is a self-driving car, but maybe it is the flying cars those of us old enough to remember were promised by the science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s. Or maybe it is some way of transporting that we cannot even imagine.

Making it possible to work creatively and generate knowledge is one of the biggest challenges companies face. It calls for training and retraining. It demands new skills, not of the hands but of the mind. It has spurred rethinking about how work is organized and how it is valued. Other factors linked to the change in work are also impelling companies to change. Millennials view employment differently from previous generations, and what they value in their jobs and workplaces have significant ramifications. On top of that, more and more people work on contract rather than in what used to be jobs for life. Workers come and go, jumping not only from job to job but also sometimes from workplace to workplace within a particular job.

Companies around the world are anxious to find the “secret” to how they can support creativity among their workers and succeed in knowledge work. Researchers offer some insights.

For instance, Theresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School who has been studying creativity in the workplace for more than thirty years, points to several aspects of the work environment that stimulate creativity: organizational support for new ideas; positive challenges for employees; autonomy in how day-to-day work gets done, along with a sense of ownership and control; resources, including information and materials; and positive challenges with respect to workloads. She also notes all sorts of organizational impediments to creativity as well as obstacles from workload pressures.

Space to support creativity

Whether anyone can settle on a single definition of knowledge work or even creativity, there is no denying the significant implications of the shift. Among these, the question of what kind of physical space is best for creative knowledge work has been posed. The answers so far are quite varied—not as far-flung as the architectural differences of the built world, but certainly not conclusive. Experimentation is rampant as those designing spaces for creative knowledge work try to find the optimal solutions.

To help figure out the direction designers ought to take, two scholars at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at London’s Royal College of Art, Catherine Greene and Jeremy Myerson, explored “types” of knowledge workers and developed a categorization scheme based on worker mobility and motivation. They began with the premise that genuine knowledge work has a creative component and that creativity is supported in the most effective knowledge-worker offices. They identified different types of knowledge workers: ones who generally work at their desks are key to knowledge transfer, prefer schedules, require concentration time; ones who roam around a lot at the workplace, depend on interaction, and need to work freely and visually; and others who spend most of their time away from the office. They conclude: “[W]e are faced with a very complex set of requirements. If we take these as our premise for the design brief, we must go beyond the traditional remit of office design.”

This, in part, explains why the physical workspace has been changing so dramatically. Many of the changes have been promoted by two disciplines: human factors and ergonomics, with its focus on wellbeing, and environmental psychology, with a focus not only on wellbeing but more specifically on how experiences in the physical world, with places and objects, influence human thoughts and behaviors.

Without going deeply into these disciplines, what is most important here is that the underlying idea of making workspaces in which we are happier and thus more creative has caught on, and has even become an imperative for companies designing new workspaces or altering existing spaces. While many projects stop at providing basic functional support for work and a variety of spaces people can use for different kinds of tasks, the trend is growing; after all, what business does not want to foster creativity among its workers?

Our book shows examples of experimentation with how space can be designed to meet that objective—with the understanding that a space designated specifically for “creativity” or “innovation” may be a space in which all behaviors and activities one associates with the creative “process” play out, but that deliberate spaces all share in common that at best they can facilitate those behaviors and activities.

There is never any guarantee that anything creative or innovative will emerge. To put it another way, there has been extensive research that hospital rooms should be designed to promote healing, psychological wellbeing, and efficient provision of care, and yet the most “perfect” hospital room cannot guarantee that a patient will not die.

Still, though, there is a growing use of so-called “innovation spaces” designed with the belief that the right kind of space can make creative work happen. Many companies have jumped on a kind of design bandwagon that has seen the emergence of so-called “Innovation Labs” around the world, particularly in Europe. Often, they are cookie-cutter versions of what some people believe are the main elements required for a space that supports creative knowledge workers.

Nevertheless, those elements themselves matter. They are a key focus of our book. We delve into some of the underlying conceptual elements of what makes for “good” space for creative thinking and learning: six dimensions of wellbeing and four categories of behavior that designers can use as high-level targets to hit as they design spaces for creative thinking and turn ideas into actual blueprints.


Psychologists, economists, philosophers, and other social scientists use the term wellbeing as a general term to describe the mental, physical, and social state of an individual or group. It is important to draw a distinction between the strictly bodily concept of wellbeing as a physician might use the term and the broader concept we are employing here in the context of space. Environment plays a major role in human wellbeing.

So does mood. There is considerable research that shows that being in a good, or positive mood, supports wellbeing and, in turn, helps us generate more original ideas. When we are in a better mood, we are more apt to get along with others, reason effectively, be healthier, and—most important for our purposes here—we are more apt to think creatively. This is not only an individual phenomenon, but also one that has been shown for groups working together.

What does this have to do with space design? First, the spaces in which we do anything have a significant influence on our wellbeing as humans, because space affects us emotionally. Therefore, it stands to reason that we can deliberately design spaces to influence us positively. Positive affect—or what has been called “pleasant feelings induced by commonplace events or circumstances”—has been linked to broadened thinking, attention, and repertoires of thought and action compared to negative affects, and positively related to a host of things that factor into working creatively on one’s own or with others: increased innovation; improved problem solving and decision making; more flexible, thorough, and efficient thinking on topics meaningful or interesting to the thinker; strategic thinking; constructive and cooperative bargaining; increased

helpfulness and interpersonal understanding; constructive suggestions and improved self-knowledge.

In the context of physical environment, a Steelcase research team identified six dimensions of wellbeing that can be deliberately influenced through design:

• Optimism: fostering creativity and innovation

• Mindfulness: being fully engaged

• Authenticity: being really yourself

• Belonging: connecting to others

• Meaning: a sense of purpose

• Vitality: having “get-up-and-go”

Each of these dimensions can be translated into multiple design choices for physical space aimed at enhancing specific elements of wellbeing.


These six dimensions suggest four definite behaviors associated with wellbeing in a workspace that space design must support. Our observation is that space design choices can either facilitate these behaviors in ways that help create an environment of positive wellbeing or can actually hamper people’s ability to behave in these ways and thus create negative wellbeing with undesirable outcomes for individuals and organizations. These four behaviors are:

• Communication

• Collaboration

• Concentration

• Rejuvenation

There is extensive research that ties communication and environments that support it to all sorts of positive outcomes; for instance, there is clearly a strong connection between communication and collaboration.

Promoting the ability to concentrate in work environments may be the easiest of the four behaviors to support with physical space, but there are still challenges (as we point out in our book). And while spaces for concentration can often also be used for rejuvenation—the act of being made fresh or new again—we also include not only rest but play. Work can be stressful, and rejuvenation is a pathway to eliminating stress that can get in the way of creativity.


We also explore biophilic design, based on the term biophilia —from the ancient Greek for “love of life” or “love of living systems.” It is a term in psychology first used by Erich Fromm to describe a psychological orientation in which one is attracted to whatever is alive and vital. Edward O. Wilson, in his 1984 book Biophilia , introduced a hypothesis that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.

By extension, architects and designers define biophilic design as designing in a manner that supports that innate connection with nature. It is the conscious creation in the built world of something more in tune with the natural world humans crave and that contributes to our wellbeing.

We discuss a wide gamut of elements of biophilic design that can help correct the disconnect between people and nature we experience when we are in the built environment:

• Greenery

• Light and views

• Material and haptics

• Shapes

• Color

Space for Creative Thinking brings all these elements and shows numerous examples of where designers have tried to make spaces that promote wellbeing and the four behaviors and correct the disconnect between people and nature. Most of them are not deliberately and specifically meant to be “Innovation Spaces,” but a few of them are.

Design principles

From this, we believe it is possible to derive some general principles for the design of workspaces that are conducive to creativity and innovation. These principles are as important for users of space—and those who commission such spaces—as they are for the designers of the spaces. We discuss six such principles in our book.

Principle 1: There are no guarantees. We stated this earlier, and it is worth repeating: no space design can ever guarantee that a single creative thought will be thought, or a single innovation will be created within it. The best one can do is to establish the conditions for creative thinking.

Principle 2: Comfort is key. Much more than through the ergonomic design of a chair, for instance, our human comfort is established by the degree to which we feel optimism, mindfulness, authenticity, belonging, meaning, and vitality. The spaces in which we work and learn should establish the mindset of comfort and wellbeing with how they look and how they function.

Principle 3: Space can unleash good behaviors. Communication cannot even begin unless we are aware of others with whom we might communicate, so design space that encourages awareness of everyone else who is also at the same company. Likewise, with collaboration: we need to be aware of our potential collaborators. And with that awareness, we then need the spaces to communicate and collaborate. Conversely, concentration requires its own spaces and the permission to set ourselves apart in those spaces when needed. And allow rejuvenation—whether of the individual, restful kind or the group, playful kind—to unfold within our work and learning environments, rather than requiring that people go somewhere else to rejuvenate.

Principle 4: Flexibility is a necessity. A very broad view of “flexibility” is best, one that encompasses as well the notion of “variability.” It is not only about ensuring that a given room can be reconfigured, which can be accomplished with furniture, rolling walls, and so on, but also about considering every room to have whatever purposes its users decide at a given moment.

Principle 5: Space connected with nature is best. Humans function best in-built environments that draw strongly from the natural world.

Principle 6: A space is only as good as those who lead in it.

Applying these six principles, as with setting aside specific space for creative thinking, offers no guarantee. The principles are, though, derived from the successful spaces we show as examples. They would thus be a very good starting point. W&P

About the Authors

Christine Kohlert

Christine E. Kohlert is an architect, urban planner, and managing director at RBSGROUP (part of Drees & Sommer) in Munich. She teaches at several universities, leads a team of design consultants that focuses on working and learning environments, and does research with Fraunhofer and other institutions on the future of work and learning.


t @kohlertc

Scott Cooper

Scott M. Cooper is a writer and a research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Design Lab. He works closely with designers, architects, and social scientists on a wide variety of projects related to digital technologies, space, and the future of

work and learning.



Space for Creative Thinking: Design Principles for Work and Learning Environments is published by Callwey


…Making it possible to work creatively and generate knowledge is one of the biggest challenges companies currently face…

…what is most important here is that the underlying idea of making workspaces in which we are happier and thus more creative has caught on, and has even become an imperative for companies…

…There is extensive research that ties communication and environments that support it to all sorts of positive outcomes; for instance, there is clearly a strong connection between communication and collaboration…


Image: Steelcase


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