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Four types of space that support creativity & innovation in business

Written by: on  February 28, 2013

Where do you go to be inspired?


This is a question I often ask people; I’m fascinated by those environments and situations that people create for themselves – whether consciously or not – in order to help them think clearly, solve problems and just really feel ‘themselves’.  I have made this enquiry over several years and the responses I receive usually fall clearly into the following areas:


Nature has a profound impact on humans.  Sunlight, fresh air and natural surroundings positively affect peoples’ sense of wellbeing and happiness.  Even a view of nature is powerful.  Research has shown hospital patients with a window overlooking trees to experience quicker recoveries and lower pain perception than those with a view of a wall or no window at all.  And office workers have been shown to experience lower mental fatigue and stress when nature is present.

The “outdoors-in” environment at Google Tel Aviv provides a stress-reducing atmosphere


Activity or movement

We all know that we should exercise more – that it keeps us physically healthy and fit.  Additionally, physical activity increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, and also a specific protein that is known to promote the health of nerve cells and improve mental functioning. Moreover, repetitive action also moves brain into ‘alpha’ state – a mild daydream or light relaxation state – the best brain state for problem solving and lateral thinking.  Operating in Alpha can be exemplified to when you are driving a car and just cruising around or when you get captivated into a good book and sort of lose track what is happening around you.  Running, walking the dog, swimming, knitting, and zoning out on the train are all common alpha-inducing situations.


A lunchtime run at Nike WHQ keeps body and mind healthy


Social settings

Some people find that ideas come to them better when they’re relaxing with friends or family or in places like bars, parks or cafes where there’s a ‘buzz’.  The visual stimulation of public spaces and interaction with other people can be just the right tonic for getting some people’s brain juices flowing.

Urban parasols

A café area at Urban Outfitters HQ is also open to the public provides a great backdrop for ideas exchange


In the bath or shower!

For some, it’s the sensation of running water and being relaxed and alone with one’s thoughts that enables real problem solving to occur.  That twilight state between being awake and asleep can be a fantastic time for ideas.  If you’ve ever wondered why you hear the expression ‘I’m so busy I can’t even think’ at work or why the name of that actress in that film-about-the-dog-and-the-old-guy suddenly comes to in the shower, it’s all down to your brain’s state and its ability to access your subconscious.  Most of us operate during the majority or our day in the 3-4% of our brain’s processing capacity that is conscious.  This is where our mind usually operates in daily life. In such a state we have full conscious awareness and attention of everything around us and usually only one side of brain is operating. This is a good state for sequential thinking and processing – actioning things – getting through your to-do list, reminding the kids about their homework whilst driving them to football practice – that kind of thing.  What it is not good for is thinking holistically or laterally, problem solving or the often sought after ‘aha’ moment.  Archimedes’ ‘Eureka!’ happened in the bath for a good reason.

Google Bath

The “Water Lounge” at Google, Zurich is a place for recharging the brain and allowing new connections to be made

When I ask the question about the conditions or environment for inspiration, interestingly, no one says ‘the office’.

We expect our people to perform at their best; the future of work demands more creative thinking and problem solving, more social connectivity and agility, yet we still tend to force them into environments that do not support them.  (Incidentally, all of the images shown here are workplaces).


Four types of (creative) space


In a world that increasingly demands innovative thinking and action to grow sustainably, think ahead of the next technological trend, keep up with and relate better to consumers, need to think outside of the cube/box/standard desk/office about how best to support the work people need to do now, how to accommodate the changing world of work, how to connect them with the business’ raison d’être, with each other and ultimately to inspire them to do the best work of their lives.

During the two years I spent peeking behind closed doors of some of the most innovative companies in the world, including industries ranging from finance to law, technology to entertainment, consumer goods to engineering & manufacturing. A few key things drove my research:

  • Corporates, not creative agencies – it’s almost expected that creative agencies have creative environments.  I wanted to see how global businesses – with all the constraints, processes and issues that come with large-scale organizations – were able to prioritise the physical environment as a strategic tool.
  • Peoples’ perspective – I wanted to see how the places operate long after the designers and architects have left.  What works, what doesn’t – how people reallyuse the spaces, rather than that polished, untouched state just after move-in day.  Some places were new, some were old.  Most of the clever bits were conceived and/or built by the businesses themselves.

A common thread throughout every company I featured was that they were clear on three things:

  1. Who they are
  2. What makes them different (their culture, internal brand, how they do what they do)
  3. What their people need to do their job well.



The four types of space that support creativity and innovation in businesses


I found that, despite the businesses, cultures and brands being vastly different, that commonalities exist in the types of spaces that they provide to support and reinforce the right activities and behaviours for innovation. Four types of space that support creative activity that enable, engage and energise people:


1. Stimulate: space for inspiration

Human beings thrive on stimulation – mental, emotional and physical.  Stimulating spaces speak to people through non-verbal means, reinforcing messages, attitudes and values.  They lift spirits, connect people to a common purpose and appeal to the senses.  Stimulating spaces can enable people to connect with the problem, subject or consumer they’re working on by allowing them to immerse themselves in that world, deriving mental energy from the stimuli itself.  A word of warning: ‘clean desk policies’ typically fly in the face of stimulating spaces, although careful space and ritual design can maintain a happy balance between stimulation and clutter!


2. Reflect: space to think.

Once the mind has been fed a problem, it often needs time and space to allow that problem to incubate. Periods of intense focus, coupled with time to unwind set up the right conditions for a creative brain to problem solve. Reflective spaces allow people to refresh and recharge, provide individual contemplation or focus on a project or task uninterrupted. Note: This type of space is often forgotten in open plan offices!  In a bid to improve communication, transparency and generate a vibrant, buzzy environment, I often see those essential retreat spaces swallowed up by large conference rooms or more desks as the company expands.  Better to maintain a balance of private and public, individual and team spaces, with smaller or shared desks than lose this valuable space type.


3. Collaborate: space to share.

Ideas need to be shared in order to get better, progress and ultimately to happen. The best creative collaborative spaces are more than just meeting rooms. In fact they’re usually not meeting rooms – they’re hallways, food stops or outside areas – and they encourage the sharing of tacit knowledge in a non-hierarchical way. Great collaboration spaces are designed to engineer collisions, accommodate impromptu get-togethers, share thinking ‘live’ and cross-functions and they also send cultural ‘open doors’ messages that encourages informal conversations despite seniority or tenure.


4. Play: space to connect and explore.

The benefits of play are well documented for social development and well-being, but few businesses really understand the power of play. Play comes in many guises – not just slapstick craziness, but also in the form of deep exploration and experimentation – as well as simply adding a light touch to human interactions.  Playful spaces allow collegues to connect in a relaxed, agendaless way – which strengthens relationship bonds and makes work conversations easier.  Playful spaces also let people de-stress and let off steam, making their working day more productive and healthy in the long-term. Finally, having ‘closed door’ spaces is an important aspect that encourages free thinking, experimentation and supports those childlike behaviours that are great for creativity, but often distracting for those trying to complete an Excel spreadsheet!


Different spaces will appeal to different businesses in different measures, but a combination of all four types (whatever the blend suits your company) makes for great environments that support the work that people need to do, the culture you’re building and reinforce the business values and vision in a way that’s uniquely you.­­


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