There is something in the notion of creative places/spaces (a distinction that I will not dwell on here) that holds tremendous fascination for a lot of people. In part this can be understood as simple desire, as in how we all wish we could work in a place that is supportive of our creativity. What’s not to like? In part, there is the dream of being able to manage/engineer places so that they engender creativity as if by themselves. If creativity can be fired by something as easy and cheap as the right colors on the wall or a foosball table, why wouldn’t this quick hack excite us? No wonder, then, that there have been so much work dedicated to making spaces creative, if not always with the desired results.
Now, in the midst of a pandemic and when many are more or less forbidden from utilizing their earlier workplaces (at least not to the extent one is used to), many of these activities can seem quite silly. Who cares about ballpits or funkily furnished offices when many of us are working from home? Also, as we’re becoming more aware of the hype that surrounded the startup world and its fascination with lavishly “fun” offices, the very notion of making a place “creative” has suffered some backlash. That said, maybe now, when we’re forced to create our own creative spaces, a more mature and less affected discussion could be had?
The challenge with making spaces hinges not on there being some magical amount of creativity-inducing furniture, palettes, or accessories than need to be brought in, but one something far more complex. Creativity, as a dynamic, requires a balance between two forces. One is the need for novel inputs. In order to be creative, we need to get our mind awakened, and one way to achieve this is by having a diverse set of influences. This is what lies behind notions such as bringing in art, lounge spaces, or a skateboard ramp into the office. Alone they do very little, but the logic is that if their presence creates a sense of incongruity in our minds, this can stimulate novel thinking and ideation. (The connected fact that the mind will get used to anything, including a skateboard ramp, and that this means elements need to be constantly changed has received curiously little interest.)
This is just one part of the puzzle, however. The other element that is required for creativity is a sense of comfort and safety. If we are bombarded by inputs and influences, but do not feel safe to develop new ideas, the latter will matter little. A creative space will need to be one where people feel comfortable and ready to get to the at times hard work of creativity. This is more difficult to achieve than is sometimes thought, for comfort and safety are not just products of interior design, they are something achieved over time.
The optimal creative space thus needs to combine comfort and incongruity, the well-known and the surprising. This might be behind why e.g. cafés can often feel creative. A café you know well is safe – you know where the bathroom is, and just how you’d like your coffee. It will however also contain surprises. New guests, street-life, the occasionally quirky musical taste(s) of a barista. Or consider an atelier. An artist will feel very safe in their studio, but these also tend to be crammed with various items meant to spark creativity – magazines, cutouts, ephemera, the occasional cat, et cetera.
What does this mean for working from home? Two things, neither of which should be surprising. One, you need to furnish your workspace so that it is recognizable as a workspace. Pick your spot and stick to it. Allow some symbols of work to accrue, to create a sense of this being your space, a comfortable space. You may not have the luxury of a home office, but make your nook your own. Relish in your rituals, knowing they feed your creativity. Two, make sure that there are surprising elements present (childred, sadly, do not count – nuisances rarely do). Invest in a nice notebook, and throw in an exciting pen while you’re at it. Get a fun and colorful keyboard, or if you hate such things, a throwback mechanical monstrosity. Indulge in fun new coffee mugs. Change the soundtrack you work to – as a café would do for you. Creativity is truly built from such little, everyday surprises.
Creative spaces are not one, given thing. Instead they are organically developing things, where comfort and slight cognitive discomfort co-exist in an ongoing back and forth. Learn to nourish this, and take pride in both the things that make you feel safe and the things that jolt your mind into new and exciting spaces.