Low background noise, a little untidiness, and light – the recipe for innovation involves a few simple adjustments to the work space.
J.K. Rowling, author of the successful Harry Potter series, wrote all of her books in the noisy atmosphere of a café, believing this environment fostered creativity. A study by the University of British Colombia in Canada seems to confirm this instinct. Researchers asked 65 students to complete some creative tasks, subjecting them to different volumes of sound recordings made in a restaurant. It turned out that working in an environment with moderate background noise – approximately 70 decibels – promotes abstract thought. There is one condition, however – periodic, limited immersion works best. It is pointless spending whole days on this because your level of creativity ultimately drops.
The virtues of untidiness
An untidy office often seems to stimulate creativity more than a very tidy work area. In 1928, Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin thanks to mold in a Petri dish which had not been put away properly and therefore had been contaminated. Without this untidiness, who knows when the first antibiotics would have appeared on the market. At Microsoft, engineers are even encouraged to design software in complete chaos.
Jia Liu, Dirk Smeesters and Debra Trampe, researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, wanted to find out how untidiness could promote creativity. They submitted their subjects to various forms of chaos, such as working in an untidy office or shopping in a store set out in an illogical way, and compared their performance with individuals placed in a “normal” environment. They thus demonstrated that the subjects submitted to chaos managed to focus better, thought more clearly and found more innovative solutions.
Some researchers contend that external visual chaos helps to better structure ideas. It also promotes unexpected events, such as finding a document accidentally in the middle of a pile of papers, allowing us to solve the problem we have been tackling for hours.
Lastly, a study carried out by psychologists at the University of British Colombia suggests that creativity is stimulated by the presence of natural light and the absence of partitions or walls. When you are able to look into the distance, with no visual barriers in the way, thoughts flow more freely and therefore more creatively.
But remember: while some people like working with noise or music, and others can only think in chaos, this is not the case for everyone. Successful office ergonomics should allow everyone to adapt their workplace to their personal requirements, making it a unique space that stimulates their creativity.
Sources: Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.