There’s no place like home, Dorothy famously declares at the end of the classic 1939 film Wizard of Oz. Today, people who study and practice workplace design might be tempted to add “ — except for the office.”
For that, we can thank the growing influence of an emerging strategy known as resimercial design. A synthesis of commercial and residential elements, resimercial design is purported to bring numerous benefits to the workplace, including a boost in employee creativity and innovation. But what is the evidence for this claim? Are there particular aspects of residential design that have been shown definitively to enhance idea flow? Determining the answers to these questions is imperative if advocates are to argue for a resimercial approach on an informed rather than intuitive basis. Otherwise, we are merely parroting vague and unsubstantiated talking points repeated ad infinitum in the press.
Let me cut to the chase by answering the second question first: yes, there are specific design components and behaviors common to residential environments that researchers have found to foster creative thinking. I am confident in this assertion because I have spent the last several years researching and writing a manual for creativity-driven home design. Titled My Creative Space: How to Design Your Home to Stimulate Ideas and Spark Innovation, the book aggregates forty-eight science-backed techniques for boosting idea generation in domestic settings.
I chose to focus on the home environment because, according to the data, people get more ideas at home or while engaged in activities associated with domestic life than at any other time or anywhere else. That includes the workplace which, I’m afraid to say, consistently ranks toward the bottom of the list. Viewed through the prism of these findings, it is understandable that building professionals like myself should turn to the residential sphere for guidance in shaping the innovation-driven workplace of today.
I can only offer a small sampling of the techniques presented in the book here. Some have already entered the repertory of resimercial design; others are less widely practiced or infrequently offered as justifications for its implementation. Some are specifically design-oriented; others involve domestic behaviors that have been observed to improve ideation, and which can, therefore, drive programming choices as to the kinds of spaces and furnishings required to accommodate them.
In the past, to describe someone as lying down on the job was to imply that they were slacking off or inattentive. Nowadays, it behooves the workplace designer to encourage users to assume a recumbent position during creative periods as often as possible.
Why the change of attitude? Because individuals who lie down or recline exhibit greater problem-solving aptitude compared to those in an upright position.
Scientists speculate that it has to do with a part of the brain called the locus coeruleus. When activated, as it is when we prepare to stand up or spring into action, this region causes a release of noradrenaline as a means of increasing the blood flow needed for locomotion. This substance also has the effect of raising alertness, energizing memory, and focusing attention — all helpful traits for someone about to become physically active, but contrary to the defocused, mind-wandering, dream-like style of mental processing that leads to breakthrough ideas. Lying down, by contrast, de-activates the locus coeruleus and in doing so shifts individuals into a more creative mindset.
A surprising bit of data popped up in the 2018 Capital One Workplace Design Survey: artwork and creative imagery placed third in a list of the most desirable workplace design features cited by employees, bested only by natural light and flexible furnishings and spaces.
In terms of art’s potency for stimulating creativity, recent neuroimaging studies confirm that the crowd is onto something.
In one meta-study (meaning a study that compiles data from multiple previous investigations), researchers discovered evidence that viewing art stimulates the desire to learn new things. That is significant because experts rank the quest for novel experience the number one predictor of creative achievement, and a core trait of the creative personality. It’s also consistent with another research finding that the act of observing art sends blood to sectors of the brain associated with risk-taking, a willingness to venture into unchartered territory being an essential precondition for persons in perpetual pursuit of original ideas.
If accusations of lying down on the job once amounted to a serious reprimand, then sleeping at work would have been considered grounds for termination.
Not anymore. Now we find nap pods and spaces in organizations like Google, Apple, Nestle, Facebook, GlaxoSmithKline, Procter & Gamble, Intuit, and Nike.
The research supports the change in attitude. For instance, brain scans generated in a study at Georgetown University revealed that brain regions associated with convergent (i.e., analytic) thinking rest quietly during afternoon slumber, while those linked to divergency (i.e., generative thinking) continue to churn away. This would explain a 2009 experiment, where subjects who completed a creativity assessment test in the morning and then napped scored higher on a follow-up exercise in the afternoon than a second group who undertook both tests without intervening rest.
You could be excused for thinking that the fireplace went out as a workplace feature in the 1920s or 1930s. Yet in one of the more unexpected consequences of resimercial design, it appears to be making a comeback.
The invention of ventless prefabricated units and alternative fuels is at least partly responsible for its return. No longer tethered to space-eating flues and chases, fireplaces and fire pits can now be installed in workplaces nearly at will, codes permitting. That could well prove a boon for creativity, as there is a long history of ‘aha’ moments striking people while situated fireside. Among the various explanations offered for its salutary influence on creativity is its inducement of saccadic eye movement, the rapid movement of the eye being linked to heightened idea formation.
It’s become nearly a cliche that we get our best ideas in the shower, but then sometimes cliches are true. Fortunately, we no longer need to be at home to reap the rewards of a good douse, as more and more organizations and developers are offering shower facilities as work perks.
So what makes the shower a veritable cauldron of creativity? One possible cause is that it involves habitual behavior. That is, we‘re so accustomed to showering that we needn’t think deeply to perform the task safely. Relieved from having to focus on our conscious actions, the rest of our mind becomes free to rummage through the storehouse of memories, images, concepts, and information tucked away below the threshold of deliberate thought. Conditions become ripe for the kind of combinatorial collisions and novel insights that are the stuff of creative invention.
There are other factors at play too: the white noise emanating from the falling water, the absence of distracting electronic devices, and the inward focus engendered by solitude reinforce the power of the shower to bring ideas bubbling to the surface.
Most design professionals I know work diligently to bring beauty into the world. But how many realize that in doing so they are making the people who occupy their spaces more creatively disposed as well?
In a recent study, volunteers encased in an fMRI machine viewed pictures of paintings and listened to musical excerpts they had rated earlier as beautiful, indifferent, or ugly. Researchers found that the beautiful works activated a particular part of the subjects’ brain — the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC), to be precise — while the ugly inputs fired up the amygdala.
This is significant because the mOFC is associated with positive and rewarding experiences, whereas the amygdala is linked to fear, anger, and movement. The former amplifies creative thinking insofar as sensory inputs that promise pleasure to move us toward the relaxed, trusting, flexible, and inquisitive mindset required for imaginative exploration. Activation of the amygdala, on the other hand, signals the prospect of harm and leads us to narrow our focus and close our mind to untried ideas so that we might concentrate on expeditiously escaping our predicament.
Some might be tempted to dismiss resimercial design as little more than a passing fad. However, as I hope to have demonstrated here, there is far too much evidence validating the ‘best of both worlds’ approach to shaping the workplace for the trend to be brushed aside. Much more than a transitory preoccupation, in fact, resimercial design could prove a lasting and effective strategy for realizing work environments that are happier, healthier and more creatively nurturing than those of the past.
Donald M. Rattner is an architect, educator, and author. Learn more about his work in the science of creative space design at donaldrattner.com.