Designing Spaces for Creativity

I’ve just spent two stimulating days with a small group of architects, university professors, and creativity researchers, at a beautiful old lakeside estate called Marigold Lodge, in Western Michigan. Our goal: To collect everything we know about how to design spaces that maximize learning and foster creativity. With funding from the Sloan Foundation and from the legendary furniture company Herman Miller (which now owns Marigold Lodge), our task is to write a report that will advise university administrations and architecture firms, to guide how new university buildings are designed.

The good news: Very quickly, we came to a consensus. Our group includes artists, furniture designers, architects, musicians, and psychologists. And even with all of that diversity, we agreed on the underlying features of creative learning spaces:

  • Spaces that are flexible, adaptable, and reconfigurable by the users: students and faculty
  • Shared spaces that foster connections and conversations, both planned and unplanned. This means rethinking hallways, lobbies, and stairways, so that they aren’t just places to pass through, but places where collaboration and learning happens
  • Spaces that inspire
  • Spaces that make it easy to create things–with materials, sketches, whiteboards–wherever you are, without having to go to some other space to be creative

Jeanne Narum, the lead organizer of this meeting, and Principal of the Learning Spaces Collaboratory, showed us a series of case studies of recent university buildings that show us this current consensus (check out the links here).

The bad news: A lot of universities are still creating new buildings that don’t look anything like this. Instead of shared space and room for collaboration, they have long hallways with separate offices for each professor. (My own office is in such a building; check out my 2008 post “The Architecture of Solitude.”)

After three days with this amazing group of experts, I’m optimistic. But on many campuses, designing for creativity and collaboration will require a culture shift, among the faculty and the students. They need to be convinced that these spaces will make their work life more fulfilling, enhance their learning, and increase the quality of their research.

The Architecture of Collaboration

In just one week, I read two major news stories about companies that are designing new workspaces to foster collaboration and creativity.

The first was in the Sunday New York Times Business section on March 18; it started with a story about the Seattle headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where they cut way back on private offices. Instead, there are a variety of workspaces that are available to anyone. Martha Choe, the Chief Administrative Officer, prefers to work at a long table at the side of a 33-foot-high open mezzanine. Other workers constantly walk by; anyone can set up their own laptop across the table.

Companies build this way because the research on creativity and collaboration shows that conversation, noise, and a bit of chaos are good. Chance encounters lead to knowledge exchange, and surprising new combinations. Private offices are a waste of space, anyway, serving mostly to telegraph the occupant’s status (the most central people in an organization are the ones that are never in their offices, anyway). In these new spaces, people are constantly in motion, always gathering into small groups. Stairways are inviting and a bit wider than usual, because so many chance encounters happen there. For that reason, the stairways are designed to end at a coffee station, a copy machine, or an informal grouping of furniture–to make it easy to sit down if you need to continue that unexpected conversation a bit longer.

A few days later (Wednesday March 21) the Wall Street Journal published a story about the collaboration benefits of shared workspaces–where employees from different companies rent space in the same building. This has long been common for smaller startups that can’t afford their own building. But unlike the old style, where every company has its own floor with a receptionist to keep out strangers, these new buildings (the story leads with one in Grand Rapids, Michigan) encourage workers to move around freely, bouncing ideas off of other workers no matter what company they work for.

These informal conversations are so effective at sparking creative collaboration, that some established companies–with plenty of their own buildings–are renting a part of these new spaces, simply to take advantage of the power of conversation. In the Grand Rapids building, there are employees from established companies like Steelcase, Wolverine, Meijer, and Amway.

I advocate these collaborative spaces in my 2007 book Group Genius (pp. 164-166), pointing out that office furniture companies like Steelcase and Herman Miller have been way ahead of this trend. I’m glad to see that companies are getting the message; the New York Times article reports that two-thirds of American office space uses some sort of open arrangement. The problem is that with many of those arrangements, people just feel crammed together with no privacy. The key to getting it right is to tap into the research about collaboration and creativity.

Lawrence W. Cheek: “In new office designs, room to roam, and to think.” New York Times, March 18 2012, pp. BU1, 4.

Rachel Emma Silverman: “Firms share space, ideas.” Wall Street Journal, March 21 2012, p. B8.