How to Use the Psychology of Space to Spark Creative Thinking
By Donald M. Rattner, Architect
If you’re a creative professional or artist who works at home either full- or part-time, you enjoy at least one immediate advantage over your office-bound peers:
People generate more ideas for novel and useful solutions to creative problems when they’re at home than in any other single environment.
Want to make your home an even more effective idea incubator? Apply what scientists in the field of environmental psychology have learned about the effects of space on creative thinking to your living quarters.
Environmental psychology is a branch of science that explores the influence of our physical surroundings on how we think, feel, and act. It hasn’t been around very long, having emerged around 1970. Despite its relatively brief existence, environmental psychology has exerted a significant influence on how architects and designers create buildings and spaces.
That influence has been felt most strongly so far in healthcare facility design. Thanks to data gathered through experimentation and field studies, as well as advances in architectural neuroscience and behavioral psychology, building professionals have been able to improve patient outcomes by incorporating scientific findings into the design of hospitals and other health-related facilities.
But research in environmental psychology hasn’t been limited to issues of healthcare. For nearly two decades, scientists have been uncovering evidence that specific design characteristics correlate with improved creative thinking.Combined with what we know about the habitats of highly successful at-home creatives past and present (think Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Tina Fey), we now have at our disposal a virtual manual of best practices for shaping space to maximize creative output.
In fact, this compendium of knowledge contains so many tactics for facilitating creativity that it would be difficult to explore them all in depth here. What I can do in this piece is get you started with a core group of design strategies demonstrated to induce fresh thinking, open-mindedness, and cognitive flexibility — hallmarks of the creative mind — as the first phase of a multifaceted program to reinvent your creative space.
The Link Between Physical Expanse and Creativity
Underpinning the various design strategies that make up this core group of tactics is a simple principle:
Our mental space stands in direct proportion to our perception of physical space.
By mental space, I mean the extent of our intellectual openness to new ideas. Physical space means, well, physical space, both as it actually exists and as it is intuited.
Applying this principle to the goal of improving creative thinking, the more expansive our sense of surrounding space, the more prone we are to generating original and useful concepts for new products, services, and methods.
Why do mental associations with physical distance catalyze creative thinking? One answer offered by psychologists is called construal level theory (CLT).
According to CLT, the observation or perception of things far away from us stimulates abstract thinking. Nearby objects or concepts, on the other hand, stimulate a concrete and detail-oriented mindset.
To analogize these two kinds of thinking, imagine yourself in a hot-air balloon floating over farmland. You look down to see abstract patterns rendered in various colors and textures. You can’t tell exactly what you’re seeing since the ground plane is too far away for your eye to absorb detailed information.
Next, imagine you’ve landed your balloon. Everything you see nearby is much clearer now, from the condition of the plants to the details of a tractor a short distance away. In the language of CLT, your mind has shifted from a high (literally and figuratively) level of abstraction to a low or close level of focused attention.
These two types of cognitive processing correspond to what are popularly known as right- and left-brain thinking, or what I prefer to call creative and analytic modes of thought. Expanding the perceived space in your home office might foster an appropriately creative state of mind.
Fortunately, there are techniques for exploiting the relationship between space and ideation that don’t require the physical expansion of your existing home office. What follows are three of the best.
Views and Vistas
The most common method of enlarging interior space beyond its enclosing walls is to open it up to the outside by means of windows, French doors, and screens.
Openings are only part of the story, however—what you see through them matters. In particular, pay attention to how far your eye travels. Windows looking onto a blank wall across a narrow air shaft, for example, won’t deliver the same psychological benefits as looking into the distance.
Of course, we often can’t control what lies outside our space. But we can exercise considerable choice in how we orient ourselves to the outdoors from the inside.
Take the room illustrated in the photograph above. The person working inside is missing out on a potential mental boost — the pattern of light falling on the floor to the right of the picture suggests an available window. But his back is turned to it.
Solution: Flip the table to give the occupant an oblique view to the outside.
Alternatively, orient work surfaces to afford views directly to the exterior.
An element of interior space that has been studied in detail for its influence on creative thinking is ceiling height. According to a 2009 study out of the University of British Columbia, people perform better at tasks requiring creative problem-solving skills under ceilings 10 feet or higher compared to eight-foot ceilings.
But don’t give up if the ceilings in your home office don’t quite attain cathedral grandeur. You might still be able to manipulate the perceived physical properties of your room to achieve the desired effect.
For instance, a space decorated with vertically striped wallpaper will appear taller than the same space painted in a solid color or embellished with horizontal stripes. Bookcases and paneling with upright proportions, window drapes falling straight to the floor, artwork and decorative arrangements configured to emphasize the vertical, and a ceiling border painted the same color as the wall are other optical tricks you can utilize to fool the eye into thinking your space is loftier than it really is.
What about lateral space? How can you enhance the perception of horizontal distance besides having openings in the wall?
Color your surrounding walls blue or green.
Optically, surfaces in cool colors seem to recede, whereas warm colors, such as orange and red, appear to be closer. Walls rendered in cool colors make the space feel like it’s expanding outward, while walls in warm hues can make the same space feel as if it were contracting.
Several laboratory experiments measuring the effects of blue and green indicate that exposure to these hues also improves creative problem solving. To be fair, however, these studies presented the colors to subjects in the two-dimensional context of a computer screen, rather than in a three-dimensional setting. Nonetheless, one study conducted by the architect Shashi Caan at a trade show in New York in 2006 serves to verify my premise that color, creativity, and architectural space are interconnected.
Caan’s setup was clever. First, she designed three rooms to be completely immersed in a primary color. She then invited show attendees to enjoy cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in any of the rooms. To make the color experience as pure as possible, she dressed her guests in achromatic hazmat suits, and even arranged for the food and drink to be white or clear.
A team of observers monitored participant behavior. Among other things, they observed that people in the blue room often gravitated toward the perimeter of the space during their stay, which is to say, they were motivated to explore boundaries, much as creatives do. Guests enveloped in red, on the other hand, tended to converge toward the center, as if the walls were nudging them inward.
Artwork and Decor
It should be evident from what you’ve read so far that the human mind is very impressionistic. That is, we tend to respond to things as much for what they imply as for what they literally are.
So it should come as no surprise that another means for inducing the mental awareness of physical distance is to embellish your home office with artwork and decorative pieces that suggest far away places and open space.
Consider displaying images of landscapes and urban views, travel posters to exotic locations, cultural artifacts from distant countries, or memorabilia collected from trips you’ve taken.
Experimental data and construal level theory support the idea of a direct relationship between proximity and cognitive style. Near things elicit narrow focus. Far things elicit a holistic outlook.
From this emerges an important insight into optimizing creative space:
Since early stage ideation (think brainstorming, sketching, first drafts, etc.) relies on abstract, big-picture thinking, the greater our intimation of spatial distance, the more predisposed we will be to idea formation.
By the way, everything I’ve written here can also be applied to innovation-driven workplaces outside the home. Feel free to share what you’ve learned in this article with your employer, if you have one!
Donald M. Rattner, AIA is an architect exploring the intersection of creativity and physical space. His new book Your Creative Haven: How to Design Your Home to Maximize Creativity, According to Science and History’s Greatest Minds, is due out in September 2019 from Skyhorse Publishing. All photographs credited to the book are courtesy of the designers and photographers.