Messy Desks Make People Creative

Everyone that I know who has a messy desk claims that it’s a sign of creativity. I have to admit, I’ve been skeptical…it just sounds like a convenient excuse. Well, if you need an excuse for your messy desk, you will love this new scientific study from the University of Minnesota*, because it finds that a cluttered office made experimental subjects more creativity.

The researchers created two offices to use in the first experiment. One was extremely tidy and organized, and the other was unusually cluttered. (If you can get access to the online article, the photos of the offices are fascinating. The orderly office looks like no one works in there, like a furniture showroom. The disorderly office looks like every office I’ve ever seen, including my own.) Then, undergraduate students were randomly assigned to spend about ten minutes in one of the two fake offices. They sat at a desk and filled out questionnaires that were unrelated to the study. After ten minutes, they were told they could leave, and they were offered either an apple or a chocolate bar. The students who sat in the clean and tidy office were twice as likely to choose the apple! They also chose to donate more money.

So the researchers kept going, and decided to evaluate creativity. The students randomly were assigned to work in one of two conference rooms, but instead of filling out a questionnaire, they were asked to come up with new uses for Ping-Pong balls. (The photos here are hilarious–the messy conference room has papers scattered on the floor, and every square inch of table space is covered with random papers.) All of the ideas were judged by two independent raters for their creativity. The students in the messy offices generated more creative ideas.

One final test, adults were brought in to work at one of two desk spaces. (Again the photos are really funny. The disorderly space has about 20 pens and pencils lying on the floor, among other messy things.) The participants were given a choice of adding a healthy boost to their lunchtime smoothie, either the “classic” or the “new”. Those who had spent time in the messy space were much more likely to choose the “new” one. The researchers argued that this means the disorderly environment led people to break free from tradition, to be more open to new things. (On the other hand, it could lead you to eat way too many chocolate bars!)

Surely some of these participants must have wondered why the researchers were such slobs? Or, did they blame the subject who was in the room just before them? Maybe just trying to come up with an explanation for such a messy space is enough to stimulate creative juices.

*Vohs et al., 2013. Physical order produces healthy choices, generosity, and conventionality, whereas disorder produces creativity. Psychological Science, 24(9), 1860-1867.

Spatial Ability and Creativity

In the late 1970s, the psychologists Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski identified a highly talented group of 563 13-year-olds; all of them scored in the top one-half of one percent on the SAT. This study is known as the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY). These teenagers were given a broad range of psychometric tests, and one of those was a test of spatial ability. Benbow and Lubinski have stayed in touch with these highly talented individuals, who are now in their late 40s, to see which of the tests–given to the teenagers–could predict various adult life outcomes.

In a recent scientific article*, Benbow and Lubinski, along with two other Vanderbilt University researchers, looked at the creativity of these 40-something adults. They classified the person as creative if they had obtained a patent, or if they had published a refereed journal article. The journal article publishers were grouped into three categories: arts humanities and social sciences; biology and medicine; and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Those who published journal articles scored better than the other 13-year-olds on the SAT verbal measure; those who had patents scored below the group’s average SAT verbal.

Those who published in the arts and humanities had scored below the 13-year-old average on SAT math measures; the other published authors, and the patent holders, scored higher than the group’s average on SAT math.

And here’s the really interesting finding: Overall, the SAT math and verbal scores accounted for 10.8 percent of the variance in adult creativity. When spatial ability was added to the mix, it accounted for an additional 7.6% of the variance in adult creativity, above and beyond what the SAT score accounted for.

The take-home message is that spatial ability contributes to adult creativity, even after you take into account a relatively standard measure of human ability, the SAT. This means that standard measures of ability and intelligence might be missing some people with exceptional spatial ability, and those people seem to have elevated creative potential. The authors conclude:

Without spatial ability, the psychological architecture supporting creative thought and innovative production is incomplete.

Kell et al., 2013. Creativity and technical innovation: Spatial ability’s unique role. Psychological Science, 24(9), 1831-1836.

Ten Lessons for Design-Driven Success

Check out Fast Company’s 10th annual issue devoted to “Innovation by Design”, showing how good design drives innovation. These are their ten key factors that drive the “new kind of creativity”, and each one is elaborated in one of the articles in this special issue:

  1. Design starts at the top. In innovative companies, the CEO is very close to the top designer. “Only the CEO can get the entire company to focus on something,” says Google designer Jon Wiley.
  2. Apple was the first to show the way. Max Chaifkin contributes an oral history of Apple’s design, arguing that Apple’s design strategy has been completely misunderstood.
  3. Good design often takes years, not quarters, to bring results. Sometimes a failed product, like Apple’s 2000 Cube, sows the seeds for later successes.
  4. There are many different ways to build a design and innovation culture. Google, for example, does not have a chief designer and doesn’t have any design “rules.” At other design powerhouses, there’s a lead designer in the C-suite. It depends.
  5. Sometimes innovation and design doesn’t seem to be the wisest financial design. It can cost a lot of money, and the revenue stream isn’t always obvious. Apple stores all have a Genius Bar and their services are free. What other retail chain devotes 20% of floor space to something they give away for free? And yet, Apple Stores have the highest sales per square foot of any retailer.
  6. Today’s consumers want good design more than ever. The examples of success are online bazaar Fab, and Samsung, and new brands including Nest and Warby Parker.
  7. Watch consumers to get new ideas and good design.
  8. Design has to be embedded and linked to every other aspect of the business. Manufacturing, marketing, finance. It can’t just be shape, color, or even just interaction design.
  9. You need both the big picture, and a mastery of the small details. Examples include Jawbone, Flipboard, and J. Crew.
  10. Treat every day like it’s the first day of your business. Jeff Bezos of Amazon uses the expression “day one” to emphasize that Amazon is still just at the beginning.

I particularly liked their timeline of key design moments from 2004 to 2013, starting on page 35. Remember when Chicago’s Millennium Park opened in July 2004? It seems like it’s been there forever! Remember when Dan Pink published A Whole New Mind in 2005? Read these prophetic words:

It’s no longer sufficient to create a product, a service, an experience, or a lifestyle that’s merely functional. Today it’s economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging.

This is a must-read issue! (October 2013)

25 Ways To Be More Creative

Inc. Magazine just published a review of my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. Reporter Christina DesMarais selected her favorite 25 techniques, out of more than 100 I wrote about in the book. DesMarais writes:

The book is a gem, chock full of fascinating findings from research studies and a deep well of tactics that will get you thinking differently. Check out Sawyer’s book if you want to know more–he claims it offers more than 100 tips on how to be more creative.

This great book review definitely made my weekend!


Improvisation Studies

I am spending a couple of days at the University of Guelph, near Toronto in Canada. You probably haven’t heard of Guelph and if so, you’re wondering why would I be in Guelph, Canada? Because in the academic world of improvisation studies, Guelph looms large. Seven years ago, Professor Ajay Heble–the founding artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival–successfully secured a large research grant from the Canadian government to create the world’s first research center devoted to the study of improvisation. The center is called “Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice” or ICASP for short. I’ve been one of the research team members since the beginning; Dr. Heble invited me because of my research and writings on jazz and theater improvisation.


My primary role in the project has been flying up to Guelph occasionally to participate in research team meetings. I always feel as if I get way more out of these meetings than I contribute, because the world’s top scholars are in one room for a special two days. Just to call out a few of the colleagues I first met in Guelph: Professor George Lewis of Columbia University, a scholar and a musician (member of the Chicago AACM since 1971); George Lipsitz of UC Santa Barbara; Pauline Oliveros, one of the early performers of electronic music (she was doing it in 1960) and founder of the Deep Listening Institute; and Georgina Born of Oxford University. And a wonderful group of younger scholars–graduate students and postdoctoral fellows–all of whom were supported by the grant.

This year’s meeting is special, because the ICASP grant was only for seven years and the project is ending. We’ve accomplished a lot; more than anything else has been to define “improvisation studies” as a recognized interdisciplinary field. And this has been one of my personal goals since I was in graduate school in the early 1990s, when I had trouble explaining to people what I wanted to study. (My dissertation was titled “Pretend Play as Improvisation” and was a study of children in a preschool classroom; this was really outside of the paradigm for developmental psychologists.) But Professor Heble was thinking ahead, and he was able to secure a second grant, for another seven years, this one to create a new “International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation” (IICSI for short). So the good news is that this year’s meeting, although the last for ICASP, is kicking off the new International Institute. I’m honored that I was invited again to be a Research Team Member.