John Cleese, English actor and comedian − and a truly creative writer, as you would probably agree − once held a public lecture on creativity, sharing his knowledge from his professional experience as well as research into psychology. Cleese explained in simple terms that the way we operate at work can be described as either being in an ‘open mode’ or in a ‘closed mode’.
In ‘closed mode’ we are very purposeful, focused on getting on with things, and tend to be a bit impatient. In this mode we may feel under pressure and develop tunnel vision. This is the mode we spend most of our time in at work, and are often stuck in it. ‘Creativity is not possible in the closed mode,’ Cleese says.
In contrast, in ‘open mode’ we are less purpose-driven, and are more relaxed, receptive and contemplative. We have a wider perspective, are more playful, and are more inclined to humour. We allow ourselves to be curious since we don’t feel the pressure to achieve things quickly. This state is ideal for creative ideas to surface.
We need both modes to get things done at work. We need to be in ‘open mode’ to come up with a solution to a problem, and then to switch to ‘closed mode’ to implement it. Then we need to switch back to ‘open mode’ again to review the results and decide if we are on the right track, and then again to ‘closed mode’ to proceed with the next stage. We need to keep switching between these two modes to be at our most efficient.
Workplaces need to support both work modes
In the last century offices were primarily built for the ‘closed mode’ − with private rooms and cubicles, and with a minimalist aesthetic. With collaborative work and innovation coming into focus over the last couple of decades, organisations have been more interested in creating workplaces that promote the ‘open mode’, and so today’s offices are geared towards encouraging serendipitous interaction, the cross-pollination of ideas and dynamic teamwork.
But be aware, when the same area in the office promotes both work modes simultaneously you can only expect mixed results. I often see workstations and brainstorming spaces located side by side in the same open space, perhaps designed with the intention to allow workers to overhear interesting conversations and to make it easy for them to join in. Unfortunately, this causes problems on both sides:
- Transitioning from the closed to the open mode can take some time. (Stripping off our sense of urgency and letting our mind quiet down can easily take half an hour.) So dragging workers abruptly out of their closed mode can leave them in no man’s land − unproductive and perhaps even disruptive in both modes of work.
- It doesn’t do a favour to the creatives either. When everything around the so-called ‘creative space’ suggests a sense of urgency − such as practical furnishing, work charts, ringing phones, and the sight of rushing colleagues − it can make it really difficult for people to get into the right mind-state.
You need to build for both modes, and be strategic about how you support people to get into and maintain the state they need to be in at any given time.
Designing for ‘getting on with things’
In other words, you need to appreciate that for certain tasks it’s better when people are not coming up with new ideas and not considering new options, but just getting on with what they’ve started. And they need the right conditions to do this type of work well.
In ‘closed mode’ people are less receptive to the subtle qualities of their environment, so when you are setting up work areas for intense concentration, the most important thing is to eliminate negative influences such as sources of distraction, discomfort and stress.
(Design solutions for supporting focused work in the workplace will be discussed in greater detail in subsequent articles.)
Designing for ‘free thoughts’
Creating spaces for the ‘open mode’ requires completely different strategies. But before jumping into those, let’s get clear what creativity is.
Creativity is not about coming up with something from scratch; it’s about combining two existing thoughts in a new way. Connecting random ideas (like skyscrapers and Swiss cheese) is not difficult; the challenge is to find ideas which, when connected, are meaningful for us and solve our problems.
Creativity is not a talent we are either born with or not, but is ‘a way of operating’. While people with certain personal attributes and skills might be able to think more creatively, we are all capable of generating inventive ideas. It really comes down to getting into a mental state in which our natural creativity can surface, and in the right environment this is more likely to happen.
Here are five workspace design strategies for encouraging the flow of free thoughts:
1. Set clear boundaries – in space and in time
To be able to open up, we need to liberate ourselves from the usual pressures of work; we can’t just be creative while focusing on getting things done in a hurry. Hence, we tend to produce more original ideas in spaces that feel like an oasis, away from the everyday work environment with its usual demands.
Rooms dedicated to creative activities should have clear boundaries, both in physicality and in the way they are used. As a general rule, they should look and feel different to other areas where disciplined work takes place, and people in these rooms shouldn’t be able to see or overhear any closed mode activities.
Ideally, innovation sessions should not be held in the same space as, for example, OH&S trainings or formal performance reviews. Put simply, no activities should happen in a ‘creative space’ that workers would associate with rules and responsibilities. You don’t want the space to bring up those associations when someone needs to think outside the box.
2. Promote positivity
Spaces that are pleasant and promote positive emotions are, in general, more conducive to creative thinking. These include spaces that are harmonious, offer connection to nature, natural light and outside views, and promote self-confidence and happiness.
According to a study at Pennsylvania State University, participants who were put into a happy mood produced almost 50% more ideas than those put into a sad mood. Another study confirmed that people are more likely to generate breakthrough ideas when feeling happy, or if they have had a recent happy experience.
3. Make people feel safe from judgement
To think freely and share our thoughts openly, we need to have the confidence that we are not being watched or overheard by judgemental people. So ideation spaces should offer privacy, unless you have already established an open culture where trust, respect and the appreciation of eyebrow-raising ideas is the norm.
4. Provide space for the unexpected
In interiors that are complex and rich in detail – e.g. which contain many different textures and objects – we are more likely to come up with new ideas than in minimalist spaces. Furthermore, seeing unexpected, surprising elements in a space expands our thinking and helps us generate a larger number of, and more diverse ideas. These stimulating items could be: a pile of toys, pictures on the wall that are non-work-related, or decorations you wouldn’t expect to see in an office. You may encourage your people to keep bringing in out-of-place objects on an ongoing basis.
A picture I’ve seen in York Butter Factory, one of Melbourne’s business incubators, is a modern-age replica of Monet’s famous painting Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies, but with a difference: the picture includes a couple of shopping carts and a traffic cone partially submerged in the pond. Another example: Superhero’s Amsterdam office has a large wall mural, featuring a llama with an ice cream cone stuck on its snout, and with floating rubber gloves in the background. Wouldn’t you love that … or being in a space that inspires such insane ideas?
5. Welcome humour
As Cleese puts it, humour ‘gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else … humour is an essential part of spontaneity, an essential part of playfulness, an essential part of the creativity that we need to solve problems, no matter how “serious” they may be.’ How to infuse humour into an interior fitout? I don’t think I need to tell you that!