Alongside easy, inexpensive design ideas to encourage innovative thinking, major investment in landscaping, interior remodelling and artworks can be a spur to creative step change, according to neuroscience research
Neuroscience research makes it clear that design can support creative and innovative thinking, or not. In the first article in this series, we discussed neuroscience findings that can be applied relatively quickly and easily and which can have a big effect on outcomes.
In this article, we’ll also cover science-informed design options that can augment creativity and innovation, but the findings that follow are more resource-intense (financial or otherwise) to implement than those previously reported.
In our first article, we advised ‘going with greens’ for surface colours (for walls, upholstery, etc), choosing warmer colours; proving more natural light; eliminating stressors in the environment; making the visual information load not too stark and not too intense; using green leafy plants in moderation; listening to nature sounds; and even using seat cushions (an inch or so will do) as a boost for comfort and creative thinking.
Now for the heavy, heavy lifting. If you have more resources (time, money, etc) available, there are further steps you can take that make innovation in your company more likely.
Raise the ceiling (but not too high)
If your ceiling heights aren’t ten feet tall, at minimum, try popping them up higher (Meyers-Levy and Zhu, 2007; Zhu and Mehta, 2017). Be careful with ceiling height though; one that’s too high will bring to mind spaces such as classical rotundas and cue more formal behaviours, which are unlikely to align with creative/innovative thinking.
One space for groups to gather for creative work is great, but multiple spaces can be even better as research shows that sometimes just relocating from one space that supports creative thought to another can spur desired ways of thinking (Nicolai Klooker, Panayotova, Husam and Weinberg, 2016).
Also, it’s important to keep in mind that for different activities crucial to the creative process, different sorts of environments are best – so a set of areas, each tuned to support specific creative behaviours (from solo thinking to group model building to freewheeling, no-holds-barred group discussions or something else) are just what the creativity doctor would order (Martens, 2011; Thoring, Mueller, Desmet and Badke-Schaub, 2018).
A multi-space approach
Coradi, Heinzen, and Boutellier (2015) collected data among work teams and found that ‘exploitation [existing knowledge] is supported by workspace design that leads to high proximity inducing faster feedback cycles and first-hand information. Exploration, however, is supported by workspace design that leads to high visibility triggering more cross-functional interactions and thereby the variability of knowledge’.
The researchers explain: ‘The later the stage in the research and development process, the higher the need for balanced learning activities. This balance is well reflected in a “multi-space” workspace consisting of shared meeting areas, quiet zones, central staircases and integrated laboratories and desk areas. . . the findings indicate that the introduction of a multi-space open-plan design improves and balances explorative and exploitative activities along the value chain in new drug development.’
Thoring, Desmet and Badke-Schaub (2018) share that ‘The flexibility of a space or its furniture is important in allowing for different creative activities. A space’s capacity to change from one type to another with minimal time and effort determines its flexibility. Moreover, for a smooth workflow it is helpful if the different types of spaces are aligned next to each other or within short walking distance… intermission spaces such as cafés or hallways might enforce accidentally running into each other, which might also support the exchange of information. The strategic placement of central objects, such as copy machines or water coolers, could facilitate social interactions.’
Locating groups near to each other when their interactions are likely to boost organisational creativity can also be highly desirable (Allen and Henn, 2007). Groups working near each other are more likely to get their morning coffee from the same machines, for example.
Paths to creativity
Both groups and individuals are apt to think more creatively in spaces where they have privacy, so creating areas that are truly private for individuals and groups can really pay off (Haner, 2005). Adding opportunities for walking, indoors or outside, is good for innovative thinking (Oppezzo and Schwartz, 2014). Walking paths outside in nature are an easy-to-imagine alternative; creating an indoor walking path, perhaps passing by artworks or something else that encourages exploration, particularly along curving routes, can work just as well as outdoor paths.
‘An indoor walking path, perhaps passing by artworks, can encourage exploration…’
If resources allow, altering architecture to provide views of nature areas (which may also, of course, require landscaping the viewed nature areas) can be a real plus (McCoy and Evans, 2002; Gifford, 2014; Meinel, Maier, Wagner, and Voigt, 2017). Gently rolling meadows with visible groups of trees and a water feature can be a big creativity boost. Orienting a building initially can help with establishing a nature view, but so can adding windows later.
Looking at nature through windows is important for maintaining our mental energy levels. When these are depleted, our efforts at creative thinking are doomed (Veitch, 2012). Looking at green roofs has also been tied to creativity (Loder and Smith, 2013), so a little neighbourhood coordination could come in handy for innovation. A less challenging way to ensure positive nature exposure is to install ‘grow’ lights near potted plants in work areas to help them stay healthy.
The great outdoors
Providing opportunities to get outdoors, via balconies, patios or something similar, can boost creativity, even if you’re in a city without a tree in view. Palanica and colleagues (2019) report that among their study participants ‘nature videos facilitated higher creativity compared to urban videos’ when viewed through a 2D mobile tablet and a 3D VR headset. However, views of real-life outdoor environments, both natural and urban, evoked the same relatively high level of creativity.
Furniture arrangements that foster eye contact, but also allow people to gracefully break that contact as the situation demands, can support innovation (Meinel, Maier, Wagner, and Voigt, 2017). A person can generally look away from a colleague and at a focal point such as a fish tank or piece of art, for example, without seeming rude.
Equitable exchange of ideas
During creative thinking sessions, it’s best if all participants are sitting on surfaces the same height above the floor (i.e. all their chair legs are about the same length)—that encourages an equitable exchange of ideas (for example, Makhanova, McNulty and Maner, 2017; Baranowski and Hecht, 2018).
Thinking while reclining has been linked to enhanced creative performance, so bringing in furniture that allows people to stretch out as they work, alone or with others, is useful for creative thinking (Michinov and Michinov, 2005). There is also evidence that individuals are apt to think more innovatively while standing (Baker Coenen, Howie, Lee, Williamson, and Straker, 2018; Knight and Baer, 2014).
The power of art
When landscaping and similar options just aren’t feasible, adding art (An and Youn, 2018), particularly art showing nature scenes (Veitch, 2012) can be a good option; it can spur creative thinking. There aren’t too many walls left on which visual art could hang in many offices, so it’s important to take advantage of every opportunity available.
Art can be expensive, or not, even posters can give creativity a boost. Batey, Hughes, Crick, and Toader (2021) found that looking at a poster showing a nature scene (in their case an 8X8 ft image of a meadow/natural woodland scene, which is relatively easy and inexpensive to acquire) boosts creative thinking.
Feeling awed has been tied to enhanced creative performance (Yeung, Tschetter and Shiota, 2011) and art can definitely create awe—but so do other things, such as floor mosaics, that indicate exquisite workmanship. Adding something that gives a space a sense of awe can spur creative thinking, and the same sensory experience can awe us again and again (Meagher, 2018).
Curved versus straight
Recent research suggests that the relative number of curved and straight lines in a space influences creativity and innovation. Wu, Lu, Yan, Chu, Wu and Yang (2021) report that ‘The results of a survey with makers in 15 makerspaces and two experiments indicated that a rounded physical work environment (Rounded-PWE) was more likely to enhance divergent creativity than an angular physical work environment (Angular-PWE), while an Angular-PWE was more likely to enhance convergent creativity than a Rounded-PWE.’
‘Round shapes are more likely to enhance divergent creativity…’
The researchers define key terms: ‘A rounded physical work environment (Rounded-PWE) indicates that the corners of objects, including shapes, abstract objects, furniture, and design elements, in the environment have been blunted and are not sharp, but curved. Conversely, an angular physical work environment (Angular-PWE) indicates that all objects have angles or sharp corners.’
The neuroscience research discussed here establishes that design can significantly and positively influence the likelihood that we’ll think creative thoughts. The number of options to boost innovation indicates that, regardless of an organization’s available resources, there are almost certainly steps that companies can take to boost the originality of their employees’ work.