Creativity and place: Does where you are impact on how or what you think?

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By Linda van de Sande

Edition 1 – August 2012 Pages 14-17

Tags: creativity • design • psychology • research

Good ideas seem to come to us at the strangest moments in the strangest places. Archimedes was soaking in a bathtub, Descartes was in bed, and well, Isaac Newton was allegedly sitting under an apple tree when they made their discoveries. Is this a coincidence? Does where you are impact on how or what you think? Are some places more creative than others?

Creativity has become a significant competitive factor in today’s economy (Florida, 2005). “More than half the economic growth came from activities that had scarcely, if at all, existed ten years previously.” (Hospers, 2003, p. 260). Employee creativity can substantially contribute to organizational innovation, effectiveness, and survival (Amabile, 1996; Nonaka, 1991). It is no surprise, that fostering creativity within the organisation is at the top of many a business leaders’ to do list.

Organisations, such as Google, Microsoft, MTV and Red Bull have implemented the idea of creative space in workplace design. Common strategies are to create open and collaborative spaces, to encourage serendipitous encounters around coffee and food and include ‘fun’ spaces with colourful and playful design elements (and the quintessential beanbag) for inspiration. ‘I just know it, I don’t need to measure it’, is what a manager at Microsoft said when asked about the creative effectiveness of their office. Fair enough, but the response made me wonder how much we actually know about creativity and the workplace.

The concept of creativity is often portrayed as something that cannot be defined, described, or copied; A gift limited to the talented few and subject to whims, divine inspiration and highly palpable muses. Indeed, there is something magical about having a creative breakthrough. Yet, our brain doesn’t generate new ideas at random. You are stuck with a problem and suddenly something you have seen or heard somewhere before is compounded and transposed, and the light in your brain is turned on. It is this ‘stuckness’ that differentiates creative thinking from analytical thinking. Wallas (1926) recognised that the creative process happens in four stages: (1) Preparation and definition, (2) Incubation, (3) Illumination and (4) Verification, others have added a fifth and sixth stage of (0) Problem recognition and (6) Marketing the idea. These stages will most likely overlap and may not happen in a linear but more iterative fashion. Elusive as creativity may seem, cognitive scientists have been studying creativity for several decades and have made headway on understanding what goes on inside the creative brain. By their definition, creativity is ‘using old ideas in new ways, places, or combinations’, that are (a) novel and (b) potentially useful. Creativity requires a variety of distinct cognitive skills such as: fluency, flexibility, association, and originality. Creativity is considered both a trait and skill, partly innate but can be practised. Everyone is creative, and the more and more diverse expertise you have, the greater the promise for creative output. In fact, “if you’re trying to be more creative, one of the most important things you can do is increase the volume and diversity of the information to which you are exposed” (Lehrer, 2012).

The creative brain

In discussions about creativity people will often refer to left and right brain individuals, implying that creativity and analytical thinking are two distinct practices, physically separated in the brain. Consider the following brain-teaser from a creative thinking experiment: Mary and Ethel were born on the same day of the same month of the same year, to the same mother. Yet they are not twins, how is that possible?

This problem requires analytical thinking to understand the problem, more creative thinking to generate alternatives and again analytical thinking to test every answer’s suitability. You may ‘see’ the answer straight away, but most people will only realise the answer three days later, when they have stopped thinking about it, at least consciously. Creativity is not linked to either hemisphere. It is the parts of the brain that direct attention and motivation, which are more important. Attention to seemingly unimportant details and motivation to keep going when you are stuck and to aim for perfection.


This is where the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that sits behind the forehead, the part of the brain that regulates attention and working memory, comes in. In the illumination stage, this part of the brain is less activated, commonly called zoning out or daydreaming, allowing us to focus less on details and have more free flowing thoughts. Research shows that this happens a lot, 47% of the time under normal circumstances and even when we try to concentrate, it happens 20% of the time (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). This mind wandering is devastating for analytical tasks, yet creative tasks benefit greatly from it.

People who were asked to do a mindless task in the middle of a creativity experiment performed better than people who worked on a more mentally taxing interval task. This might also explain why people with ADHD are generally more creative, their mind wanders often. Fatigue can make it more difficult for people to concentrate, therefore night owls tend to be more creative in the morning and early birds have more original ideas late at night. Contrarily, a good night’s sleep also does wonders. More so, because creative thought is heightened just before going to sleep or when we first wake up. Furthermore, lay off on coffee, because this intensifies analytical thinking and being anxious or under pressure also tends to put you in a more analytical mindset. Alternatively, a drink of alcohol or the use of marihuana or amphetamines have been found to loosen the mind. It is this state that, on EEG scans, in the right hemisphere of the brain alpha waves are emitted. Although the function of alpha waves are still a mystery, researchers have found that they are a precursor to creative insight. They mark the transition from incubation to illumination. Hot water increases alpha waves, perhaps that’s why so many eureka moments happen in the shower.

This doesn’t mean the prefrontal cortex switches off. Although it might not be entirely focused, the working memory still processes and monitors our thoughts. Good ideas are stored in short-term memory and directed to connect with other ideas. Research done with highly creative people, as measured by their achievements, shows that they have a way of paying more attention to information which others will consider ‘noise’. Also when working memory is not bogged down, it allows us to think more freely. For example classical cellists, who were asked to remember several different words during a performance were rated as less creative in their musical improvisations. So if you are stuck with a problem, take time out, step away, clear your thoughts, creating so called ‘psychological distance’ (Liberman & Shapira, 2009), whatever gets you to focus less on the problem. Often, the best way to solve a problem is to stop thinking about it. Or as Einstein put it: creativity is the residue of wasted time.


It is a great feeling when you have that creative insight and all falls into place, but it takes strong motivation to get there and keep going, a certain stubbornness and resilience to failure and rejection. Thomas Edison wisely said: “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. Creative motivation is strongest if it comes from within and increases when the task is engaging, satisfying and or challenging and when the person has creative confidence, a belief in their own creative aptitude. External drivers such as evaluation, rewards and a controlling culture can undermine intrinsic motivation. Goncalo & Duguid (2012) suggest that creative people are stifled by strong group norms. They need the freedom to determine their own behaviour.

A common idea is that positive emotions encourage creativity and negative emotions are to be avoided. That’s why there is a tendency to create fun and happy workplaces. In recent years thinking about emotion has changed dramatically. Emotions function as a motivator for behaviour and they determine which type of action we will choose and how active we will be. Anger and sadness are both negative emotions but anger has a mostly positive effect on creativity whereas, sadness a mostly negative effect (DeDreu, et al, 2008). This perhaps explains why conflict and frustration in the first stage of creativity is not a bad thing.

Creativity is innate in each of us, but must be nurtured to thrive. An overview study by Furnham (2008) suggests that personal characteristics explain only 5 to 15% of the difference in creativity between people. This means our creativity isn’t fixed, but depends on context and circumstances. So how important is the space around you for creativity?

Creative space

Discourse on the context of creativity centres on either social and organisational aspects, or macro- and medium-scale geographic areas. As a consequence, only a few studies investigate the relationship between physical space on a micro spatial level, such as the workplace. I believe space affects creativity in three ways: direct effects, implicit message, and facilitation of behaviour.

Direct effects

Several studies have found direct effects for space on creativity. In one study, one group of participants worked on puzzles similar to the one about the two siblings. Another group did the same but subtle hints were placed in their environment. The findings were astonishing. Participants in the second group solved significantly more puzzles than the first group. This shows that we draw information from the space we work in.

Other studies have looked at more concrete spatial features in relation to the creative mindset. Csikszentmihalyi (1996, p. 136) states that prepared minds in beautiful settings are more likely to find new connections among ideas and new perspectives on issues at hand. In general, creativity flourishes in light and airy and relatively quiet (below 70db) spaces, with high ceilings, and a direct window view. Natural daylight or iridescent light is best. Fluorescent light has a negative effect on creativity. The use of blue and green colours fosters creativity and originality, not quantity of ideas, but has no influence on analytical performance, whereas red undermines analytical performance, but has no influence on creativity performance. The presence of plants and greenery within a workplace (Shibata & Suzuki, 2004) further encourage creativity.

Providing cognitively and perceptually stimulating physical environments through artwork, building materials and visual cues can enhance the performance of creative tasks.

Research by Leung and her colleagues (2008) indicates that, under certain circumstances, a multicultural environment (their participants worked in a modern New York apartment with traditional Chinese furniture) can lead to sustained, higher levels of creativity.

There’s some research which suggests that novelty and surprising environments can trigger creative insight. This would support the inclusion of playful design features, however there is no clear understanding of how long it takes for novelty to wear off.

Implicit message and image

The second way physical space can affect people is by expressing and reflecting the identity and culture of the organisation and its users. According to ‘behaviour-setting theory’, physical cues (colours, materials, layout . . .) in the environment send a message to people about appropriate behaviour and responses. In other words: design informs users about how they should behave. For example, churches elicit religious behaviour even in people who are not religious. Work environment factors that promote creativity are: a buzzing atmosphere, people interacting and moving around, a presentation of creative work (visuals and models). Physical space and layout can also express a flat structure; managers working in the same open plan space, signals the possibility to critique or discuss ideas. Research shows that less creative people benefit from being around creative co-workers.

However, projecting an image is a delicate balance. Direct attempts to influence creativity may not only be resented by employees because it doesn’t suit their personality, but also because it seeks to reshape their values and expression. So, no matter what you do, if people don’t see it that way, if what you do is seen as inappropriate to the circumstances or if it is obvious what you are trying to achieve, the effects are minimised.

Facilitating behaviour

Space could further act as an enabler of the creative process by facilitating different activities. Since creativity is a catchall of problem finding, problem construction, combining information and ideas, generating alternatives, insight and idea evaluation, it appears that different things happen in our brain at different stages of the creative process.

Perhaps different spaces are needed in different stages of the process: e.g., quiet space for individual creativity and buzz for inspiration and cross-fertilisation.

This could explain the inconsistencies in staff surveys between the types of spaces people want for creative thinking. The incubation and illumination stage require more private spaces for quiet personal thinking. Distraction at work is perceived as negatively affecting creativity: It takes the average person 20-30 mins to get back into ‘the zone’. Brainstorming also seems to be more effective done solo. By brainstorming on their own, people produced more ideas that were more original and not hampered by group think. The other stages require frequent interaction with others to define the problem and exchange ideas to generate alternatives and validate the solution. On the other hand, several experiments suggest that under certain circumstances the presence of others has a negative effect on creativity (Meusburger, 2009). Especially when there is an atmosphere of competition amongst co-workers. In general, cross-fertilisation increases creativity and productivity.

Facilitating cross-fertilisation through space design requires a delicate balance. Proximity and visibility facilitate communication. We are ten times more likely to talk to a person who sits next to us (Allen, 1984).

People who work within 10 meters of each other are not only more likely to communicate, the quality of their creative work is also higher. The Allen curve indicates that the likelihood of work-related communication with a person who sits more than 50 meters away is close to zero. And the introduction of IM or Skype hasn’t changed this since.

Does this mean that large open plan offices to increase collaboration are excessive? Not entirely, because novel, non-redundant information from diverse social circles is more likely to be communicated through weak ties. Network theory proposes that employees in peripheral positions with many connections outside their network would be exposed to new ideas and perspectives that contribute to their own creative ideas. Also close knit teams are more likely to fail. The better option is to have balance between people who know each other well and relative outsiders. This is because people trust each other enough to work well together, but there is room for new guys to bring in fresh ideas. At Pixar, people are assigned a desk space. It is the producer of a project who will place people together, based on what they are doing. They may not necessarily be on the same team.

In general, open space increases collaboration and random encounters. What we can further learn from urban planning is that higher density in combination with spatial friction increases the likelihood of ‘collisions’; it increases the bump factor. For example in neighbourhoods with wide streets and few corner shops, social interaction between strangers is less likely.

The extent to which the workplace facilitates creative behaviour is positively related to creative output of the employee. Data from the Leesman Index suggests that space for creative thinking is seen as important by employees and the more mobile employees are the more important it becomes. One catch in this, is that it is not the actual support but the extent to which the employee perceives the workplace as supportive. According to most of the 10.000 Leesman respondents their workplace provides insufficient support for creative thinking. How is your workplace performing and does it make you more creative?


Creativity is a function of personal characteristics, characteristics of the physical context, characteristics of the social-organisational environment, and also the interactions among these characteristics. Creative performance is driven by personal characteristics but can be further enhanced by the work context. The social-organizational work context seems to have a stronger impact on creativity than the physical environment.

Creativity is a verb, it is a difficult process and requires a lot of cognitive and emotional effort. Attention and motivation are the key in the creative process.

Creativity desires a building that allows and encourages diversity, contradictions and disagreement, through its spatial organisation. Penn et al. (1999) highlighted the importance of spatial differentiation, since shallow, i.e. centrally located spaces afforded unplanned interaction and the rapid transfer of ideas, whereas deep, i.e. segregated spaces afforded the completion of assignments.

Effectiveness of the creative workplace is very much about the ability of employees to control the physical environment to meet the required level of privacy, interaction and noise. Personal control of the environment can be met by the ability to choose the right place for the task at hand or the ability to alter the environment to suit the task.

One has to recognise the specific processes and activities involved and especially their cognitive requirements. It is important to realise that people can have different conceptions of the same physical workspace and its effect can vary from irrelevant to highly motivating. Even the wildest of workplaces cannot, despite the executive hopes placed in it, disguise, the daily reality of an uninspiring role or counterproductive work culture. Seth Godin put it beautifully: “The most efficient way to get the behaviour you’re looking for is to find positive deviants and give them a platform, a microphone and public praise”.


Much of the research into creativity and space is correlational, this means that there is a relationship, but we often don’t exactly know which influences which. There’s plenty more research to be done. The increasing interest from academics and professionals leaves me hopeful for the future.

I hope this article has brought you a better understanding of the process of creativity and more inspiration on how to use it for the design and layout of your workplace. Some of the incentives for creativity suggested here will probably be beyond the scope of FM, but require a more strategic collaboration between different business service units as well as top level management. (Editor: this is one of the challenges being looked at in the “GRID” research programme, by Occupiers Journal Ltd).

As to the problem, about the twins, I’ve included three hints throughout the article to try and help your brain think about it subconsciously while you were reading. If your thoughts wandered elsewhere instead of this problem, the two sisters are part of a triplet. Don’t be concerned if you didn’t get it. If creativity is about forging new links between existing ideas, it needs to be built on knowledge and experience. Contrary to popular belief, the peak of a person’s creativity does not lie early in life. Talent can be developed and nurtured. Expose yourself to new experiences and various types of information. Participate in the creative arts and develop your creative mindset. Get out of the box and carry something with you to record your creative thoughts, because you never know where your next big idea is coming from. W&P

About the Authors

Linda van de Sande

Linda is Occupiers Journal Limited “Regional Partner” in the Netherlands. She is a psychologist and researcher, focused on bridging the social and the built environment. Linda has an interest in making FM and CRE more attuned to the needs of its users, and says “the environment shapes people and people shape their environment.” Linda previously worked for an international architectural consultancy firm, helping organisations to develop and implement strategic workplace design (“New ways of working/ ‘Het Nieuwe Werken”), taking an integrated approach to workplace design by combining real estate, human resources, information technology and change management. She was involved in projects in China, India, the Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia.

e [email protected]



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De Dreu, C., Baas, M. & Nijstad, B.A. (2008) Hedonic Tone and Activation Level in the Mood–Creativity Link: Toward a Dual Pathway to Creativity Model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 739–756.

Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1996), Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, New York: Harper Perennial.

Florida, R. (2005). Cities and the creative class. Routledge, New York.

Furnham, A. & Bachtiar, V. (2008) Personality and intelligence as predictors of creativity. Personality and Individual Differences, 45, 7, 613–617.

Goncalo, J.A. & Duguid, M.M (2012). Follow the crowd in a new direction: When conformity pressure facilitates group creativity (and when it does not). Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 118(1), 14–23.

Hospers, G. J. (2003). Creative Cities in Europe. Intereconomics (September/October, 2003), 260-269.

Killingsworth, M.A. & Gilbert, D.T. (2010) A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science 330, 932.

Lehrer, J (2012) Imagine: how creativity works. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Liberman, N. and Shapira, O. (2009). An Easy Way to Increase Creativity. Scientific American, July 21.

Leung, A. K., Maddux , W.W., Galinsky, A.W. & Chiu, C (2008). Multicultural Experience Enhances Creativity. American Psychologist, 63 ( 3), 169–181.

Meusburger, P. (2009) Milieus of Creativity: The Role of Places, Environments, and Spatial Contexts. In: Meusburger, Funke & Wunder (Eds.) (2009): Milieus of Creativity. An interdisciplinary approach to spatiality of creativity. Dordrecht, Springer.

Nonaka (1991). The Knowledge creating Company. Harvard Business Review, 69(6), 96–104.

Penn A, Desyllas J, Vaughan L, (1999) The space of innovation: interaction and communication in the work environment. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 26(2) 193 – 218.

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Further reading

Robert J. Sternberg (1999),“Handbook of creativity”, Cambridge University Press.
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (2009),“Flow Psychology of Optimal Experience”, Harper Collins.
Jonah Lehrer (2012), “Imagine: How Creativity Works”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


Editor’s footnote:

Once again, we feel that this paper is another great example of ‘real science’ being
applied to elements of the workplace. There are many issues to consider, and perhaps common design practices to be re-worked as a result, in Linda’s article. Also, again psychology is being shown to be one of the most important bodies of knowledge to be applied to ‘work and place’. We are fortunate to have Linda as a member the Occupiers Journal Regional Partners network, and we will hear more from her in future issues. Do please join this discussion with Lindaand others on our Work&Place Linkedin Group.

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