Designing for Creativity
Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, is not a design book, but it does have important implications for workplace designers. In his best-selling look at the science of creativity, the author talks to the likes of Milton Glaser and Harry West (the CEO of Continuum), studies the songwriting process of Bob Dylan, and visits Pixar Animation Studios and the 3M campus—all in search of what makes individuals and organizations capable of deep insights, eureka moments, and wild leaps of the imagination. Drawing on his extensive research for the book, Lehrer shared with us his ideas for the ultimate creative workplace.
WHAT SHOULD WORKPLACE DESIGNERS KNOW ABOUT THE NATURE OF CREATIVITY BEFORE DEVELOPING SPACES TO ENHANCE IT?
The first thing that they should take into account is that architecture has cognitive consequences, that something as incidental as the color of paint on the walls can dramatically influence the way we think. There’s a study in the book about red rooms versus blue rooms, how red rooms make us better at long division, copyediting, and working-memory tasks, because red makes you think of stop signs, blood, and danger. You’re more vigilant, attentive, aware. Blue rooms make you think of the ocean and the sky—you’re more relaxed, and make more abstract associations. So workplace designers should know their designs are not just about aesthetics. Design can dramatically influence productivity, the kinds of thoughts people think, and the connections they make.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE OTHER PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES THAT PLAYED A ROLE IN ENHANCING CREATIVITY?
One of the biggest impacts that designers have on workplace creativity comes from the kind of interactions that they encourage. That’s probably best demonstrated by Pixar’s studios, which were shaped by Steve Jobs [and designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson]. Jobs insisted that everyone work in the same building. Then he insisted that everyone be forced to go through the atrium, because he wanted all of the different cultures at Pixar to interact constantly. He put the gift store and the mailboxes there, and the coffee shop and the cafeteria, and then, of course, in a stroke of genius, he put the only bathrooms in the studios in the atrium. Because if there’s one place we all have to go every day, it’s the bathroom. I spent a lot of time at Pixar, and they talked about how annoying it was, at first, to have to walk five minutes to pee. But then, again and again, I heard stories about these breakthroughs in the bathroom, the epiphanies that came while employees were washing their hands and striking up random conversations.
IN THE BOOK, YOU SPEND A LOT OF TIME TALKING ABOUT BOTH URBAN AND SPATIAL DENSITY. IS THE ULTIMATE CREATIVE WORKPLACE A DENSE ONE?
Yes. You want a threshold of density. You’ll have more interaction. You’ll have more ideas in a smaller amount of space. That’s good. But density and friction are not always pleasant. Friction produces sparks, but it can also lead to smelly subway cars. So the job of the designer is to find ways to maximize the good and minimize the bad, as happens in the best public spaces of a city.
One of the most innovative buildings of the twentieth century was horribly designed. MIT’s Building 20 gave rise to military radar, Bose acoustics, the development of the cathode- ray tube, hacker culture, and the work of Noam Chomsky. It was an incredibly innovative space, by any measure, and yet no one liked being there because it was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. It was designed in an afternoon and built on the assumption that MIT would tear it down after World War II. But then the GI Bill was passed, and the school needed all the space it could get. It ended up being this incredibly innovative space, in part because MIT assigned all the various scientists and thinkers that they couldn’t find any other place for to Building 20. It contained linguists and philosophers and computer scientists, this motley crew of brilliant minds.
And even though it was dysfunctional, the design of the building was also liberating. Because it was so run down, people felt free to tear down walls. So it endowed people with a sense of freedom. It was a horizontal space, so there were long hallways and isolated stairwells, which encouraged serendipitous interactions. It was also easy to get lost in. It had a confusing numbering system, which was annoying, but also forced people to meander around. And that’s often when they had an important encounter with something or someone.
WE TALK ABOUT HOW ESSENTIAL DESIGN IS TO THE WORKPLACE, BUT IN THE END IT SEEMS AS IF AN ORGANIZATION’S INTERNAL CULTURE TRUMPS ALL.
Yes, but those variables are hard to separate. Design is not only part of a culture but can help in establishing or reinforcing one. Obviously, you can build a perfectly designed space, but if the employees you put into it don’t want to collaborate, or if they’re not diverse, having the wrong people can undo the best design. But the right design can take even the most extreme introvert and encourage him to make small talk in the bathroom, strike up collaborations, and ask unexpected questions, and thus become more creative.
WHAT’S THE FIRST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’D GIVE TO A FIRM CHARGED WITH DESIGNING A SPACE FOR CREATIVE WORK?
I’d say, “When in doubt, imitate the city.” Try to create a work space that feels like an effective urban sidewalk. It’s about maximizing serendipity, while realizing that, sometimes, doing so is going to involve trade-offs. It’s going to involve things that, at first, might seem like design flaws, but those trade-offs are often essential. This is something Jobs knew in his bones. Creativity is not a free ride. You need those bathroom chats, but they’re going to come with the expense of a long walk. And that’s okay. In the same way, cities require their residents to make trade-offs—you put up with expensive rent, crime, and crappy public schools, but get so much in return.
The best workplace design understands the creative process. There are moments when we want to interact, and there are moments when we need to turn the spotlight of attention inward. The best offices permit both. They focus primarily on spaces that allow people to interact, but they also provide places for escape.
WHAT’S THE FUTURE OF WORK AND THE WORKPLACE?
It’s easy to get carried away with fanciful predictions that say the future’s going to be radically different from today. Fifteen years ago people were talking about the death of geography. Because of digital technology, we’d no longer need offices or even cities. We’d all sit on our couches in our pajamas, eat Fruit Loops, and telecommute. That hasn’t happened. In fact, the opposite has happened. Cities are more important than ever. So we’re still going to be working in skyscrapers. We’re still going to be coming together in this very analog way, simply because something essential happens when we do. That’s why I say, “When in doubt, imitate the city.” Think about the effective public spaces that make these crazy things called metropolises so essential. And try to figure out what it is about these public spaces that makes them work, and how you can capture that in your office.
WHAT’S YOUR PLATONIC IDEAL OF A CREATIVE WORK SPACE?
I just saw pictures of the Eames office in Venice, which no longer exists, but looked like a pretty special place. It had an aspect of Building 20, this sense that everything was a prototype. Nothing was permanent. If you needed to expand your work space, because you had a great idea and the prototype had to grow, you just tore down a wall. That’s a very powerful idea. It’s easy to get carried away by aesthetics.
MIT replaced Building 20 with the Stata Center. I talked to people who worked in Building 20 and asked them, “Would you rather work in Building 20, or in this $400 million Gehry building?” They all said, “I’d rather work in Building 20.” So you want a sense of flexibility about space, where people don’t feel somehow trapped by the prettiness. And you see that in pictures of the Eames work space. Of course, because it’s the Eameses’, it also has a certain elegance. You see all the iconic Herman Miller furniture. It’s mostly an open plan, but you do see these crannies, these corners, where people are clearly working by themselves. In these pictures, they always look so focused. I’m jealous of their intensity. It would be nice to share space with George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, and all the rest, but it’s also a pretty cool interior space on its own.