We all know the impact that the space we work in has on our productivity and creativity. As facilitators and participants in group process, we feel great when we have light, air and space to move around. It helps us think more creatively and keep our energy high. Now, there’s scientific research that backs this up. This interesting article in the Wall Street Journal confirms what we know intuitively — the space we work in strongly impacts the job we do and even our physical health!
Here’s to great creative spaces!
Building a Thinking Room
Wall Street Journal, Saturday April 30th by Jonah Lehrer
For thousands of years, people have talked about architecture in terms of aesthetics. Whether discussing the symmetry of the Parthenon or the cladding on the latest Manhattan skyscraper, they focus first on how the buildings look, on their particular surfaces and style.
Today, it turns out, the real cutting edge of architecture has to do with the psychology of buildings, not just their appearance. Recently, scientists have begun to focus on how architecture and design can influence our moods, thoughts and health. They’ve discovered that everything—from the quality of a view to the height of a ceiling, from the wall color to the furniture—shapes how we think.
Recently, for example, researchers at Ohio State University and the National Institute of Mental Health tracked 60 white-collar workers at a government facility in the central U.S. Some had been randomly assigned to an old office building, with low ceilings and loud air-conditioners. The rest got to work in a recently renovated space filled with skylights and open cubicles.
For the next 17 months, the scientists tracked various metrics of emotional well-being, such as heart-rate variability and levels of stress hormone. They discovered that people working in the older building were significantly more stressed, even when they weren’t at work. The scientists said the effect was big enough to be a potential risk factor for heart disease.
But spaces can also help us to become more creative and attentive. In 2009, psychologists at the University of British Columbia studied how the color of a background—say, the shade of an interior wall—affects performance on a variety of mental tasks. They tested 600 subjects when surrounded by red, blue or neutral colors—in both real and virtual environments.
The differences were striking. Test-takers in the red environments, were much better at skills that required accuracy and attention to detail, such as catching spelling mistakes or keeping random numbers in short-term memory.
Though people in the blue group performed worse on short-term memory tasks, they did far better on tasks requiring some imagination, such as coming up with creative uses for a brick or designing a children’s toy. In fact, subjects in the blue environment generated twice as many “creative outputs” as subjects in the red one.
Why? According to the scientists, the color blue automatically triggers associations with openness and sky, while red makes us think of danger and stop signs. (Such associations are culturally mediated, of course; Chinese, for instance, tend to associate red with prosperity and good luck.)
It’s not just color. A similar effect seems to hold for any light, airy space. In 2006, Joan Meyers-Levy, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s school of management, studied the relationship between ceiling height and thinking style. She demonstrated that, when people are in a high-ceilinged room, they’re significantly better at seeing the connections between seemingly unrelated subjects. In one experiment, undergraduates came up with nearly 25% more connections between different sports, such as chess and basketball, when sitting in a loft-like space than in a room with an 8-foot ceiling. Instead of focusing on particulars, they were better able to zoom out and see what various things had in common.
Although we’re only starting to grasp how the insides of buildings influence the insides of the mind, it’s possible to begin prescribing different kinds of spaces for different tasks. If we’re performing a job that requires accuracy and focus (say, copy editing a manuscript), we should seek out confined spaces with a red color scheme. But for tasks that require a little bit of creativity, we seem to benefit from high ceilings, lots of windows and bright blue walls that match the sky.
One day, we might be able to firmly ground the forms of architecture in their mental functions.