Skip to main content

Your Creative Space

If you needed to repair a car, where would you choose to do it? In the living room? The kitchen? The bathroom? Probably not. You'd most likely head to the garage. After all, it's where your tools are located. It's where your nuts, bolts, and, if you're like my dad, all those "extra car pieces" are. If you're lucky, you may even find a repair manual or two.
Wouldn't it make sense, that the best place to be creative, would be in a place specifically designed for the task?
To be clear, I'm not proposing that any single location will guarantee creativity, as much as I wish people could be creative on demand, in my experience -- sometimes it's just not there. What I am recommending is that you design a space that inspires and enhances creativity as much as possible, while at the same time removing any anti-creative elements.

In this post we'll take a look at designing your own 21st century "creative space", whether it's in your classroom, your office, or even at home. We'll also peek behind the curtain at the spaces of famously creative and innovative individuals to see where they worked on a day-to-day basis.

The CreativityLab at Starbucks

What Do You Need to Be Creative?

What does it take to be creative? Where does that spark of creativity, that innovative idea come from? I'm pretty sure there is not a perfect recipe for creativity, but I propose, at its core, you need three basic things: knowledge, resources, and security.


Knowledge is the building blocks of creativity. The more things you are knowledgeable about, the easier it is to make those unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated things. In essence, the more pieces you have, the more connections you can make.

Traditionally, knowledge can be acquired through experiences and research. I'm sure there are very strong, and valid, arguments for experiencing things first hand, rather than researching them, but sadly that option is not always available when you're on a deadline. So the question is, how are you going to enable research in your creative space?


Resources can refer to a wide variety of things. It may be materials that are required to brainstorm, concept, and build something. It could represent money that is used to purchase necessary assets. It can very often be a reference to the people available to work on the project. The resources you need may vary greatly depending on the problem you're trying to solve, or the thing you're trying to create.

What resources do you most commonly need to solve your needs?


While knowledge and resources are very important assets to have for creativity, they both pale in comparison to the importance of security. I'm not talking about the odds of someone being robbed at gunpoint while brainstorming. What I'm speaking about here is a much deeper type of security -- feeling safe to speak your mind. Feeling safe to toss out crazy ideas and not be judged by them.
Security breeds confidence which feeds synergy between people, which in turn, often sparks those crazy, innovative, wondrously creative ideas. 
With that being said, how are you going to design your space so that it ensures security and safety among those who use it? The most direct answer can be handled with just one rule. Make a sign. Make it big. Make it a crystal clear understanding that, "There are NO BAD IDEAS in this zone." plain and simple.

But it's also important to note that you shouldn't confuse laughter "of and idea" with laughter "at an idea". Let's face it, some ideas are going to be funny, and that's a good thing. It could be a great thing. So I would be sure not to outlaw laughter -- simply be respectful of all ideas.

What Kills Creativity?

As we just identified, there are a few things that are needed to help spark creativity. However, when it comes to crushing creativity, the most common cause is painfully simple -- fear. People in brainstorming situations are afraid of being judged, or laughed at. They are afraid their ideas might by "silly" or "stupid", or they're afraid their ideas are just plain "wrong".

Ken Robinson was famously quoted as saying:
If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original.
Participants must be willing to take that risk of being "wrong", without the fear of being teased or ridiculed for it. Unless you're delusional to think that you're going to be "right" all the time, then you have to believe that being "wrong" is simply part of the process to work through. Creativity is often extremely messy. Most of the time you will pass through a lot of "wrong" before arriving at the "right" destination. It's all just part of the process.

You wouldn't believe how many times an "outrageous" or "silly" idea has sparked a separate idea that led to a truly innovative solution which is why people (continuously) need to be reminded to pitch those insane ideas.

This all comes back to that idea of security. Participants must feel safe to throw out any idea that comes to mind.

Create Your Space

As you can probably imagine, being creative in cramped, claustrophobic spaces is a less-than-ideal arrangement. So, if you're planning on using that old mop closet as a brainstorming center, you might want to look for other options.

You need plenty of room to get up and move around. Brainstorming sessions are meant to be active, energized, physical events. Locking participants to their seats surrounding a large table is restrictive and dull.

Of course the size requirements of the creative space are going to be directly tied to the number of people commonly using the space at one time. A small start up company of 3 employees will not require the space that a full classroom of 25 high school students will need.

Find a space that will comfortably host your creative team plus an additional 15-20%.

In cases where you simply can't afford the extra room to designate a large space for brainstorming, look for tricks that at least give the illusion of a more open environment. Use glass walls or large mirrors reduce that "boxed in" feeling that smaller rooms convey, and they make great dry erase boards as well.


As "cool" and "sophisticated" as track lights or moody recessed lighting can be in a dimly lit room, your creative space is not the place for it. You don't want anyone going to sleep during a brainstorming session.

When selecting your space, use bright lighting, natural lighting is even better. Studies have shown that people who spend more time in natural light verses artificial light are more alert and productive. Be sure white boards are well lit, as well as any other areas you need to display information. Again, if you're lucky enough to build your creative space against a large exterior window you're able to gain the advantage of the natural light, and the large glass writing area in one shot!


Believe it or not, color also plays a big part in how you feel in your environment. This may be a bigger pill to swallow for business owners than classrooms, but if you want to enhance the creativity of an environment, studies have shown that brighter, vibrant colors are the way to go. 

There has also been psychological research conducted that indicates that specific colors can affect your behavior or attitude. While currently much of the research is anecdotal at best, there is still a lot of attention paid toward color in marketing, advertising and branding. (There's a reason why all those fast food places are filled with red and yellow.)
With this in mind, studies have indicated that the color purple tends to create a more creative and imaginative environment. If you're not into rolling with a monochromatic (one color) color palette, then may I recommend taking a triadic approach and using purple, orange and green.

Orange is a "call to action" color. It's cheerful, friendly, and instills confidence, all good things to have in a brainstorming session. Green, I admit, is sort of the "odd man out" in this trio in terms of being helpful and motivational in creative sessions, but it does finish out the triad. The benefits it provides are growth, peaceful and health.


Of course you're going to need someplace to sit in your creative space. The key thought in terms of furniture is "keep it mobile". The room and the furniture needs to accommodate everyone meeting together, typically around a large writing space, but it also needs to support the ability to break off into small groups or even pairs for more focused discussions.

Ensure that your seats/chairs are easy to move anywhere in the room. Instead of going with one large central table, consider 2-4 smaller tables that can either be joined together for the large meeting, or pulled apart for compartmentalized discussions.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it's best to test out your furniture before you buy. Make sure it's actually comfortable to sit in. At one studio I worked at, we had a half dozen or so large bean bags that were scattered around the room. While this sounds like the "best idea ever", in terms of mobility and comfortability, they were a little awkward to "sit in" for a meeting. It left the "sitter" in a persistently reclined state which seemed to detract from engagement instead of promoting it.

Pinnacle Foods Ideation Room


Since it's one of our "big three" required things for creativity, you can bet that you'll want plenty of creative resources in your space. 

Be sure to include LOTS of places to write, draw, sketch, etc. These can be whiteboards, glass walls, extra large Post-It Note pads, or even rolls of white butcher paper. If your budgetary resources are enough for a smart board, then you can go digital with your sketching. 

In any of the above cases, let me bestow upon you two vital points of wisdom:
  1. Be sure to test and erase your markers on your surface in a small out of the way corner before covering the entire wall.
  2. If you're using dry erase surfaces then I highly recommend eliminating any and all permanent markers from the room to prevent any -- accidents. 
However, should you have an "accident" on a non-porous surface, you might try writing over the permanent ink with a dry erase marker and erasing them both at the same time. Depending on the surface, this has worked really well.

Have plenty of Post-In Notes on hand (of multiple color if possible). If you can find a collection of various sizes, that usually works out best. No, Post-In notes don't "make you creative", but they sure do provide a simple and fast way to categorize and recategorize things on the fly.

I myself am a "pencil" guy. I make way too many mistakes to use a pen. If you're going to supply traditional pencils in the room, please don't forget to include a pencil sharpener somewhere. Nothing's worse than trying to work with a tool that can't perform it's main function.

Don't forget to include ways to research information. These can be reference books, industry magazines, computers, or tablets. 


I've already noted that creativity can be "messy", I should probably add "noisy" to that description. Once the ideas start flowing, brainstorming and ideating can be crazy, chaotic and noisy. You'll want to keep that in mind when planning the location for your space.

You don't want to disrupt other students, or employees while you're both working.
The last thing you want is for someone to come in during the birth of an amazing idea just to have them ask you to "keep it down". 
Talk about a buzz-kill.

Yes, you want open space, and no, you don't want to be boxed in with walls, but be considerate of the people in the area around your creative space.

One last note on audio -- music. Personally, I'm a big believer in the power of music and I find that having topically or emotionally appropriate music playing quietly in the background can spark ideas and, if it's familiar music, keep things on track. This is optional, but if you can play music that's appropriate to what you're doing it can be really beneficial. Just make sure the level is low so that it doesn't become distracting.

Honestly, if a spontaneous sing-along to Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody is what it takes to spark a great idea, or get everyone in the room engaged, then I would gladly volunteer that 5 minutes and 55 seconds to get things rolling. 
Creative Lounge - Digitas Boston

Being Creative Can Get Messy

As I've mentioned, creativity is often a messy business, but does the "messy" help or hurt creative thinking? Scientists at the University of Minnesota conducted research on working in 'clean' and 'messy' workspaces and developed some interesting findings.

Working in a 'clean' environment definitely has it's advantages. These people were more likely to "do what was expected of them". They were less likely to engage in crime, or litter. They were more generous with donating to charitable causes, and even eat healthier. It's hard to argue that these aren't all good things.

However, their experiments also showed that "Disorderly environments seemed to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights. Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage conventional and playing it safe."

You can watch one of the co-authors of the study discuss his findings in this video.

In other words, if your creative space begins to take on a disorganized feel while you're working, resist the urge to "tidy things up" and "put everything away when you're not using it."

Do you find the research a little hard to believe? Let's take a look at some historic examples of some of the most innovative creative people in history. These individuals were leaders in science, literature and technology. While having a specified "creative space" probably wasn't foremost on their minds, let's examine the environments they worked in on a day-to-day basis. I'll let you be the judge of how organized and neat they kept things.

Thomas Edison

Edison worked behind a simple roll-top desk and surrounded himself with shelves of books on various subjects. The wooden desk featured 4 dozen or so cubbyholes that were stuffed with various notes, diagrams and other documents from projects he was working on.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain worked at a number of desks throughout his career. Historical photos show that the desks were most often cluttered with a mountain of drafts, letters and documents. A full bookshelf was typically only an arms length away. 

Steve Jobs

Apple creator and CEO Steve Jobs surrounded himself with a library of books. His desk was most often covered with various stacks of documents. The piles were placed and stacked neat enough to give of semblance of organization, but just how organized, only Jobs could tell you. 

Albert Einstein's Desk

Most images of Einstein's work environment show a desk so cluttered, barely any of the surface could be seen. His office space was surrounded by wall-to-wall bookshelves filled with a plethora of books that were uneven, leaning over, or in some cases stacked flat, one on top of the other.
If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign? 

- Albert Einstein

Wrapping Things Up

We've covered a lot in this post and I hope you've found a take away or two that you can use in your classroom, school, office or home. Once again, designing and designating a creative space still doesn't guarantee on-demand creative ideas all the time, but there are numerous things that have proven to increase creative thinking and nurture creativity. So, why not do what you can to up the odds on sparking that innovative idea?

If there was a single item that I'd like to ensure that I passed along, a "creative magical gem", it's the notion that you destroy fear in your space. Welcome everyone to participate, to have fun. Encourage the "crazy" ideas and the ones that are "impossible". Embrace the outlandish, the abnormal. Leave judgement at the door, because the only bad idea, is not giving an idea a chance.


Popular posts from this blog

FUNctionality! - See Things DIfferently

Educators, if you're looking for a quick, fun game for your class that also serves to help everyone see things differently, more creatively , then try this "FUNctionality" activity. This is a game I developed with the help of my students the latter part of the year. It's been through a few iterations already and I present it in its most recent, and balanced, version. Before we begin, let me ask you this, how could you use the object in the image shown below? For most people, a single purpose comes to mind and I'll go out on a limb and assume that I don't have to describe it. However, for students playing our game, this object spawned a wide range of uses that included, cleaning up spills, writing messages, drawing circles, dressing up as a mummy, measuring the length of something and stuffing a pillow or stuffed animal. The Setup This little game doesn't take much, just literally the things you have around your classroom, and a stopwatch (you can

Genius Hour: Week 8 - "The Final Stretch"

The weeks are counting down and we're nearly at the end of our first Genius Hour period. Students are putting last minute touches on songs and poems. They're polishing book layouts in Adobe inDesign, furnishing virtual houses in SketchUp, and they're practicing their dance moves. As we wrap up week 8 of Genius Hour there a few special things to note. Juniors are BACK! First, is that our juniors have just returned from their nearly 2 week long professional internships with companies and organizations around the area. I was dying to circle up and hear about those experiences, but they already lost time last week and I wanted to give them as much time as they had available. I was also aware they spent a couple of hours debriefing earlier that morning. Spring Is Here Next week is Spring Break! Most students will use that time to take trips, visit theme parks, and relax, but I have heard mention from several students or groups that they still have a little work and practic

Kicking Off Genius Hour

Learning to speak Korean, illustrating how car engines work, learning desktop publishing software, and demonstrating how to pilot a plane; these are just a few examples of what students will be learning in my first period class for the next nine Friday's. And that's just the first of seven classes that are exploding with dozens of wildly different projects and ideas. Friday's Are About to Get Brilliant Today we kicked off "Genius Hour" in each of my classes, which includes Graphic Design and Advanced Graphic Design for grades 9-11. Genius Hour is based off Google's 20% time. Google had the theory that if they granted their employees 20% of their time to work on projects they were passionate about that productivity would go up, stress would go down, and Google might just get some cool products out of the deal. Apparently, Google was right. As a result of Google-time, products like Gmail, Google News, Google AdSense, and Google Translate were all brough