by Tom Isler | September 01, 2007

The Thinkubator in Chicago


Think tank:
The wildly inspiring
Thinkubator in Chicago

Academic perspective

Janetta McCoy thinks so. McCoy is a professor of interior design at Washington State University and might be the only academic studying the link between work environment design and creativity. While she hasn’t studied meeting spaces specifically, McCoy’s office design research has demonstrated that not only do some people feel more creative in certain work environments, “they sometimes are more creative.”

For her master’s thesis at Cornell University, McCoy devised a pair of experiments “to examine the potential role of interior design elements in fostering creativity.” Along with professor Gary W. Evans, McCoy wanted to determine which specific elements of an environment contribute to its “creativity potential” -- the power to foster creative ideas -- and also how those spaces affect people working on tasks that require original thinking.

For the first study, she presented hundreds of photographs of different rooms to students and asked: “If you had a very special problem to solve and needed to generate a lot of new ideas, where would you most likely choose to go?” The top selections were determined to be high in creativity potential.

McCoy found no correlation between creativity potential and the size or shape of the room, or the quality or quantity of light. Rooms that were most attractive to students were spatially complex, visually detailed, built with natural materials, designed for interaction and had views of the outdoors. Rooms offering both textured wood and glass were positively associated with creativity potential, as were spaces that prompted curiosity and exploration. Factors that tended to bring down a room’s creativity potential were cool colors (blues, greens, purples), the absence of views and the prominent use of manufactured materials.

McCoy then tested students doing creative work in two different spaces, one with a high creativity potential rating, the other with a low rating. The students took a standardized test designed to gauge creativity and also were asked to make collages that expressed their personalities “in interesting, unusual and clever ways.” Test scores were unaffected by the physical environment, she found, but students produced more creative collages, as determined by an independent panel, in the space with the higher creativity potential.

Igniting ideas:
Sparkspace in
Columbus, Ohio

Variations on a theme

Among creative meeting venues, the environments vary. On one end of the spectrum, Catalyst Ranch looks as if a toddler’s birthday party might break out at any moment: Play-Doh and stuffed animals are in ample supply. Niewiadomski acknowledges that people have different comfort levels with toys in a “work” environment, and her staff never forces groups to play -- but most do.

Cromwell, of the Columbus Children’s Hospital, says the games, toys and puzzles available at Sparkspace are advantageous to her attendees, especially the more introverted personalities who can grab a Rubik’s cube and play around during meeting breaks to feel more comfortable in the space and connect with other attendees. “It provokes a lot of discussion,” she adds.

Other venues, such as Blue Ocean Facilities and The Launching Pad, take a more reserved approach. “I was never a bouncy-ball kind of person,” says Gus Valen, founder of Blue Ocean and managing partner of The Valen Group, a Cincinnati-based strategy and innovation consulting firm. “Wacky, goofy stuff did not do it for me. Playfulness is important, but it doesn’t have to be kid-oriented.”

Valen’s venue emphasizes design: comfortable furniture, flexible spaces, bright colors and decor with an ocean theme. He touts the 26 double-sided whiteboards on wheels, and large walls for taping up posters or other materials, as supportive of the creative process.

The Launching Pad’s Docherty preaches the benefit of services provided by his consulting staff -- from custom music playlists to research analysis -- that help ideas take flight. Other venues also bring in innovators to facilitate meetings, but at The Launching Pad, the service is a core part of the experience.

The Launching Pad has a decidedly homey feel, with hardwood floors, sofas with bright pillows and windows that look out onto the natural surroundings. One room is dedicated to meditation and “cardiorespiratory synchronization,” a calming technique that harmonizes breathing and heart rate, which Docherty says helps clear the mind.

Sparkspace’s Mark Henson is supportive of all the various approaches to creating more inspiring meeting venues. “People want meetings to be better than they have been in the past,” he says. “They’re starting to look to environment to make that happen.”