designing spaces that support innovation

What type of environment supports creative thinking? The Bay Area’s most innovative companies have been asking – and answering – this question for years. Touring their offices brings us a great set of “best practices” that can be applied to any home or business space where creativity matters. (And doesn’t creativity matter everywhere?)

#1: Promote Wellness

Intensely creative people have a tendency to get completely wrapped up in what they’re doing – sleeping erratic hours and guzzling caffeinated beverages. Innovative companies provide a buffer against burnout by surrounding employees with an environment that makes it easier to eat well, exercise regularly and stay connected to nature.

Perhaps the most famous example is the sprawling Googleplex, boasting outdoor volleyball nets, accessible gardens, and a variety of restaurants, including a bar serving wheatgrass shots.

Back in ’08, still-fledgling Facebook successfully recruited Google’s executive chef for their new cafeteria, and the blogosphere immediately exploded with theories about the symbolic significance of this event. Was Facebook upping the ante? One blogger wrote, “We’ve seen high-caliber Googlers jump ship to Facebook before, but an executive chef? Just mind-boggling. Facebook must be cooking up something.”  Yup, Facebook was. Less than two years later, they surpassed Google in daily visitors, garnering the honor of “most visited site on the web” in 2010.

Genentech, founder of the biotech industry, has also been a trailblazer in prioritizing wellness. They built an on-site gym before it was fashionable, and continue to promote their restaurant-quality cafeteria (right) as an employee perk. These are only a few of the things that help this innovation giant to consistently make the cut for Top 100 Best Places to Work.

Even museums are seeing the light. The California Academy of Sciences, one of the top research centers in the nation, recently renovated their offices to provide virtually all employees with natural light, fresh air, and lush views of Golden Gate Park.

#2: Encourage Play

If you’re interested in creativity, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about the key role of play. But do you know what sort of environment facilitates play? It’s very simple: toys and games. Pool tables, ping-pong tables, chess boards, video games – fun distractions like these can be found at most of the major hubs of innovation in Silicon Valley. Netflix gets a extra-special gold star for their playful conference rooms – each one with a different movie theme.

#3: Embrace the Bizarre

Believe it or not, merely observing unexpected images may help the brain to relax into new ways of thinking and perceiving. That is the conclusion of this recent study on creativity. In one experiment, scientists showed people images such as a teapot with legs, or a key with a snake coming out of it, and then measured their brain activity. Looking at the pictures activated the same portion of the brain that lights up when people are engaged in creative problem-solving.

Perhaps this is why so many innovation leaders accessorize their office environments with objects that range from the eccentric to the silly to the just-plain-strange… The game room at Pixar features an enormous Alice-in-Wonderland style chair that practically begs visitors to climb up onto it. In a corridor at Twitter, there’s a bright blue plastic deer – for now anyway – it might be something else tomorrow. At Facebook, the letters “HACK” are scribbled in graffiti across one wall. Not your conventional office art.

#4: Foster Collaboration

“The myth of the lone genius achieving one eureka after another in a closed room is a cartoonish, outdated cliché.” That’s the conclusion of a 2009 Steelcase study about creativity in the workplace. Those treasured “eureka” moments, researchers concluded, most often emerge from effective brainstorming sessions.

So what types of interiors support effective brainstorming? IDEO, unsurprisingly, is brimming with ideas on this subject. Their own brainstorming rooms are stenciled with cozy reminders such as: “Encourage wild ideas,” “defer judgment” and “go for quantity.” They favor easel-sized Post-It notes for writing things down (better than a whiteboard because you can shuffle the ideas around). IDEO also stocks a wide variety of art supplies, such as blocks, foam core, tubing and ribbon. Brainstormers use these materials to build crude models of the concepts forming in their brains.

Another design tip from IDEO is to create a dedicated space for observing customers testing a product. Careful observation, they find, can be more useful than customer surveys. When you are actually watching a human using a product, you can see for yourself exactly when and how the product starts to get confusing for them.

#5: Create No-Interruption Zones

While collaboration is vital for innovative thinking, the opposite is also true: People need focused alone time in order to develop their ideas. Jason Fried, author of Rework, says “creative people – designers, programmers, writers, engineers, thinkers – really need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get anything done.” Which is why, he concludes, many creative people feel they have to leave work to DO their work: In a normal office environment, there are simply too many distractions. Designing customized “privacy pods” may be the next big thing in designing for innovation. Stay tuned!

So how does all this relate to the home? Most of these concepts transfer readily to a domestic setting. Keep healthy food in the house – food that’s already prepared, so you don’t have to stop what you’re doing to cook. (Salads from Whole Foods are a handy trick.) Dedicate a spare room to a treadmill or yoga mat if you don’t have hiking trails or a gym nearby. Make sure your home is not too serious – probably not a risk if you have children or pets! Let go of the need for everything to be decorated “just so,” and shake things up with some quirky or even tacky accessories. In my house we have a couple of life-size stuffed tigers that float from room to room. They wear jewelry. Our home is thoughtfully decorated, but there’s plenty of room for eccentricity (or I would go insane). Set up a project table in the garage, and borrow some of those brainstorming ideas from IDEO. Don’t worry if things get a little messy sometimes. Create family rules about privacy and interruption, so you’re able to stay in the flow when you feel inspired. If necessary, set up a stand-alone structure in the backyard so you can escape from the fray.

Most importantly, carve out some TIME to follow your passion wherever it leads! (Time might even more important than space…) Have fun creating!

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions…. Knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. Yes, logic may get you from A to B, but Imagination will take you everywhere. Imagination encircles the world.”


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