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Don’t Let Your Work Space Sabotage Your Creative Mojo

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Callahan Creek Creative Director and Creative Boot Camp author Stefan Mumaw channels his inner Walt Disney to drop creative work space ideas.
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Walt Disney, arguably one of the greatest creatives of the 20th century, had a very particular way in which he led brainstorming sessions. The story goes that Walt would conduct idea sessions in three different rooms, each serving a unique purpose in the creative process.

The first room was a large meeting space with high ceilings and wide walls. It featured a large, round table and a chalkboard. The second room was smaller, housing a lesser number of seats set up in a semi-circle facing that same chalkboard. The third room was barely bigger than a closet, holding an even smaller number of chairs placed in a straight line facing-you guessed it-that very same chalkboard. These rooms were occupied in succession and often took two or three days to be fully utilized.

In Walt’s mind, each room had a specific purpose to the process. They weren’t designed to accommodate the practical needs of the occupiers. They were designed to accommodate the inspirational needs. In short, they were chosen because they set a mood.

What does mood have to do with creativity, you may ask?  it turns out, a lot. A 2005 study performed by researchers from Harvard, Penn, Berkeley and NYU solidified what most creatives already knew: happy environments are creative environments.

“When reactions to ideas are encouraging, a virtuous cycle may be established, in which cognitive variation and creativity are subsequently increased. In contrast, if reactions to ideas are negative, the affect-creativity cycle may be truncated.”

- “Affect and Creativity at Work” [PDF], 2005

Most creatives would willingly admit that they “feel” more creative when they are in a space that has been designed to be more creative and is occupied by others who share that feeling, but few can identify what that feeling really is or truly means. They just know that the space makes them happier, and joy is directly tied to creativity. Some spaces are designed to efficiently provide better access to the tools that a creative may need to do their work, while others are designed to be ergonomically superior in structure or form. While these are fantastic, we’re seeing an uptick in corporate environments designed specifically to inspire ideators to ideate. Happiness is the filter by which these work spaces are judged. From the corporate offices at Google to the brainstorming spaces at IDEO, creative spaces are being lauded as creative thought incubators.

But you may not work at Google or IDEO. You may work at an agency, be part of an in-house department, or be a freelancer. You may only have control over the 8’x8’ cube you’ve been assigned. What can you do to create an environment that inspires creative thought for you and facilitates ideation from your collaborators? Here are some ideas to turn that space from stuffy to stimulating:

The Hodge-Podge

Most creatives have at minimum some desk real estate and at maximum entire walls dedicated to knick-knacks of an odd nature. From posters and figures to keepsakes and lucky charms, creatives are hoarders of the bizarre. Why do we collect? Because each of those items are a story, and we tell stories for a living.  

The truth is, that hodge-podge of trinkets and toys is doing something far more meaningful than conjuring simple nostalgia. Those are virtual spacemakers, lifting the ceiling and extending the walls of your space to something greater. They are reminders of a time outside of that cube, visual cues to another time and place. They are time machines that transport you to place of joy, and that place is a powerful accelerant for creativity. If your space is missing those personal trinkets of wonder, start collecting at once.

Whiteboard Paint

The whiteboard is the defacto standard corporate communicator. Mounted to conference room walls, the whiteboard has replaced the chalkboard as a means to collaborate on ideas or communicate public reminders. Few creatives have the room or substrate, however, for whiteboards in their workspaces, even though these corporate staples promote a positive creative behavior: drive-by ideation. The temporary nature of whiteboard communication makes it an ideal thumbnailing, storyboarding and idea documenting tool. So get creative about getting creative.

There are a number of commercially available paint brands that sell whiteboard paint (and chalkboard paint if you’d rather go old school). You may not be able to fit a whiteboard into your space, but you could paint a wall with whiteboard paint and write on the entire wall. Or if that isn’t feasible, measure an available area of your space and whiteboard paint a piece of board to fit the area. Or take it up a notch and choose a section of your desk itself to paint, creating an ever-present, writable space to work through ideas. Whiteboard paint turns any surface into a creative playground-it practically begs to be used. Use it.

Unusual Shapes

Our every day is filled with very standard shapes: 8.5”x11” paper, #10 envelopes, 3.5”x2” business cards, 8.5”x5.5” notepads, 11”x17” posters… the list goes on. The propensity of those predictable shapes in our work tends to numb us to the routine. But they also provide an opportunity to shock novelty into our day by introducing shapes into our work spaces that are purposely unusual.

Design a poster that is long and thin and hang it in your space. Design your tabletop to stop short of normal size. Round corners. Add height. Unusually sized visuals within a work space serve as reminders to think alternatively, buck the system, be volatile. It is anti-social, and anti is good for creative thought.

Bringing The Play

Play and creativity are closely related; they share common characteristics. Both move toward a positive goal, both have rules that benefit from work-around development, both reduce the consequence of failure. Whether we realize it or not, we’re engaging in play every time we doodle on the sides of our notepads in a meeting. The brain and the hands are uniquely tied together. Studies have shown that we think more clearly when our hands are busy. So give your hands something creative to do.

Bring in a bucket of Legos or a few canisters of Play-Doh and watch what happens around your work space. First, you’ll notice that you fill those empty spaces between thoughts and projects with miniaturized building efforts. You’ll make cars and walls, form monsters and insects. Then, you’ll notice this behavior while you’re talking and thinking, freeing your mind to generate more ideas. Lastly, you’ll find others want to participate just as much and collaborators will gravitate to your space because they “think better there.” These temporary collaborations strengthen ideation and give the germs of ideas opportunities to grow-all from plastic building blocks and modeling clay.

Kids’ Books

As adults, we usually read illustrated children’s books only if we have children (odd, I know). What other reason could we have to pick up a book that will take us two minutes to finish? What if that book was actually a symbol of the very thing you strive to do every day? What if that book could teach you how to do your job better while inspiring you to see perspectives you typically miss? It can.

Children’s books typically communicate a complex story simply. They have to; the mind of a child in incapable of understanding complex ideas, so authors must find the absolute simplest manner in which to communicate each line of copy and each action they want the reader to take. In addition, they need to make that story vibrant and beautiful, so the child is engaged and understands the scenario.

Isn’t that exactly what you strive to do as a creative?

Try this exercise: go down to your local book store and pick up a few illustrated children’s books. As you read them, try to invent the feature film that those stories could become. Not an animated feature; conjure the type of live action summer blockbuster that movie studios develop every year. Change the characters but keep the basic outline of the story intact. In short, make that children’s story complex and grown-up. Can you see it? This is a backward analogy for your creative work. Instead of forming something simple, we develop the complex story and yearn for simplicity. Children’s books find a way to accomplish that simplicity and can inspire you to do the same. On a shelf or in a cabinet, store away a few of your favorite children’s books and pull them out when you need a boost of simplicity.

Your Desktop

Your desktop is killing you. Not your physical desktop; your digital one. Almost every creative sits behind a screen of some form and the display of that screen is typically the last place we think to look for inspiration. But if you think about it, you stare at that desktop for hours a day. It can have a tremendous influence on your creative mood. If you were asked to generate ideas for a new project and you were told you can spend the next 20 hours looking at a pile of rotting, gutted fish or an Italian master’s painting, which would you choose? You have that same choice every day.

There is an abundance of desktop wallpaper available on the internets, but if you’re a designer, you should make your own. Once a month, create a new desktop wallpaper. Or find a few other conspirators and challenge each other to create new ones around a theme or concept. If you’re feeling really inspired, take this challenge: for one solid month, create a new desktop wallpaper every single day. It sounds unattainable, but you may find your capacity for creative thought is deeper than you imagined.

If Walt Disney was still around, what do you think he would do to your work space? Can you imagine? If you can, you have a host of other things you could create to turn your work space from boring to boss.

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