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Where do you do get your best ideas? This is a question that my friend and associate, Roger Firestien, used to ask in his presentations, and one which I frequently pose. The responses range from, "In the car," "on the boat," "at the coffeeshop," "in the outdoors" or "in the bathroom." The answers are varied except for one commonality (and no, it has nothing to do with "running water"). Rarely does anyone say, "at work" or "the office." How about you?

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If you're like the vast majority of the people we talk with, you're not getting great ideas while sitting at your desk.

So get up and go somewhere else. Or fix the place in which you're thinking.

This article will help you recognize why you're not getting your best ideas where you'd hope to, and will focus on helping you to create a space where you can be more productive in creating new and improved ideas.

Scanning the research, the bad news is that there is almost nothing which tells us what the ideal physical environment for creativity and innovation looks like. The good news is that this gives us total freedom to create one that works for YOU. (Note: there is plenty of research that tells us about psychological environments, climates and cultures that support creativity, but that's for another day).

Consider that some well-known writers have created physical environments that facilitated their innovativeness as described by George Kneller in his book, THE ART AND SCIENCE OF CREATIVITY:

"Schiller, for example, filled his desk with rotten apples; Proust worked in a cork-lined room; Dr. Johnson surrounded himself with a purring cat, orange peel and tea; Hart Crane played jazz loud on a Victrola… An extreme case is Kant, who would work in bed at certain times of the day with the blankets arranged round him in a way he had invented himself."

Don't forget Henry David Thoreau's cabin described in WALDEN.

Some people go outside of their office to do their creativity work. Einstein came up with his greatest theories while sailing. Edison, a man with over 1,000 patents to his credit, would go down to the dock and fish (or at least pretend to). Robert Lutz, the recently retired president and vice chairman of Chrysler Corporation, was driving the back roads of southeastern Michigan in a V-8 powered sports car when he conceptualized using their new V-10 truck engine in a new sports car as a way to add excitement to their product line. This eventually turned into the hot V-10 powered Dodge Viper sports car. As for me, I wrote most of this paper in my head while swimming laps (Mozart also was fond of taking exercise).

Rotten apples anyone? Perhaps not, but clearly the physical environment in which one thinks is important for sustaining creative thinking efforts. Although there is no research that shows what is The Best Physical Environment to support innovation, there is research that shows that people learn and think better in physical environments that suit their personal preference. And there is research that shows that environments can stimulate creativity.

Certainly the opposite case is also true, that physical environments can stifle creativity as well. You need only look at your own personal experience about the places where you can't function because of noise, light, distractions, discomfort, not well equipped, and so forth. For me, all it takes is a phone. Whether it's ringing (huge distraction) or not (distraction in the form of calls I need to make), working next to Bell's invention makes it very hard for me to create new ideas, new proposals, new articles, and new products.

So besides eliminating the telephone (IF that works for you), what can you do to create the perfect environment? The first step is to recognize the elements that you need in order to be comfortable enough — or uncomfortable enough, if that works for you — to let your brain work free from distractions. Rita Dunn, Kenneth Dunn and Gary Price created an assessment called the Productivity Environmental Preference Survey (PEPS) that takes a look at individual preferences along several dimensions related to physical environment. Take a look at the following physical dimensions to see which ones describe your ideal environment:

  • Light (prefer dim or bright)
  • Noise (prefer quiet or sound)
  • Design (prefer formal or informal)
  • Temperature (prefer cool or warm)
  • Peers (prefer working alone or with others)
  • Authority Figures (want present or not present)
  • Mobility (prefer movement or not)
  • Intake (prefer eating/drinking or not)
  • Time of day (prefer morning, afternoon or evening)

Charles Cave, in his CREATIVITY WEB, describes Gustav Mahler's "composing cottage" that he had built in a meadow between an inn and the shore of a lake. "The small building had a table, chairs, a sofa and a piano brought from Vienna. Early in the morning he retired to this sanctum and stayed there until lunchtime. When he felt blocked, he would go for a walk in the meadow, run up the hill or go for longer walks, returning each time to 'bring in the harvest.' The cottage gave Mahler physical isolation and means of temporary withdrawal from his immediate surroundings."

Now take a look at the list again and start to create an image in your mind of the perfect environment for your "composing cottage." Look at it from the perspective of either creating a brand new space from a clean sheet of paper or think about how you might modify your space to make it work better for you. You might also think about where you should be going to do your creative thinking — is there a place in existence that works for you? As you draw a picture, a sketch a plan, or write a description of what the place would look like, consider these questions:

  • At what sort of work surface do you work best? (desk, lab bench, lap desk, floor, grass)
  • What sort of seating area do you prefer? (straight-backed chair, lazy-boy recliner, swivel chair, bed, floor)
  • What kind of stimulus do you need around you? (plants, pictures, windows, sculpture, television, yo-yo, slinky, charts, co-workers)
  • What kind of light do you need? (natural, artificial, bright, dim, direct, indirect)
  • Do you need activity around you? (movement, conversation, kids playing, factory floor, coffee shop, busy street, retail environment, park)
  • Do you need intake? (Coffee, water, tea, Coca-Cola, cookies, fruit, jelly beans, snacks, Ginger Snaps)
  • Do you need a sparse environment or a cluttered one (lots of piles or a clean desk)
  • Do you want noise around you? (Silence, classical music, birds chirping, lapping waves, factory noise, kids playing, loud rock & roll)
  • What about movement (room to walk, your car, exercise equipment, chained to your chair)
  • When do you work best (if at night, where can you work? If during the morning or afternoon, how to keep people away? If during meals, how can you eat and work?)
  • What materials do you need to do your thinking (drawing paper, computer, note pad, canvas, clay, chemicals, building materials, blackboard)

Now that you have Your Creative Place detailed on paper (or at least in your innovative brain), take a look at it and begin to ask yourself what you can do right now, later, and long-term to create a perfect environment for you. Jot down the steps that you can take to make Your Creative Place perfect.

For one co-worker, it meant getting a lamp out of a closet and putting it next to the bed so that she could read and write in the middle of the night without having to reach across her slumbering partner to turn on the light on his side of the bed. I recently bought a new chair because I couldn't get comfortable leaning back in my old one as I stared at the ceiling. Another friend recently moved around the desk in her office so that she could gaze out the window while she was thinking. And Susan, my impetuous fiancee, recently went crazy with hedge clippers on the overgrown ferns outside of her office window in order to allow in more light.

What can you do right now? Bring in a sound system? Hang a picture? Move the desk, the bookshelf and/or filing cabinet? Add some plants? Get some tea? Throw out that pile of unread trade magazines? Take off your jacket? Or just get out of the space!? Go outside? Take a drive? Go for a walk? Take exercise (it worked for Mozart, and you're still reading this article, so it must have worked for me)? Go to a coffeehouse with your laptop (another favorite)? Or just let some apples rot in your desk drawer?

Whatever it is for you, write down the list of things you need to do, and do something — anything — TODAY to improve your space so that it works better for you. And then keep working at it until you've got the perfect space in which you can think creatively. And don't limit yourself to working at your desk. It may not be the best place for you. If you've got the freedom, go elsewhere to do your important creative thinking. Or just shuffle your time so that you can be in the Right Creative Place at the time when you need your best creative ideas.

The bottom line is that to increase your creative power, you should improve your thinking space, or go to another one. Do whatever it takes. Your brilliant new ideas, and the people who like them, will thank you. •

Next: Diving Deeper into Innovation

©2004 Jonathan Vehar. All rights reserved.