The Serious Business of Designing for Creative Thinking

TT Journal, Vol.1, ISSUE 2, 19th March 2021

by Sally Augustin

This is a tough time to be a human.

Humankind needs to creatively resolve a multitude of challenges in the weeks and months and years ahead.  That makes this a good time to apply the findings of studies probing issues related to the design of spaces where people are more likely to think—and act—creatively.

And there’re lots of science-informed insights to apply.

The findings that follow are place-independent; they hold, and can be applied, whether people are at home, in a corporate workplace, at a co-working site, or somewhere else entirely.  Also, always remember, that a lot of creative work, even tasks that have officially been delegated to a group, is actually done alone—the material in the next few paragraphs is relevant to both solo and group work areas.  And spaces that support creativity are great areas for innovation, as well.

Research conducted to the highest standards by neuro-, cognitive, and social scientists, worldwide, makes it clear that people are most apt to think creatively in spaces that:

  • Feature the color green. Looking at the color green has been tied to enhanced creative performance.  Among all the greens available, those that are not very saturated and relatively light are the best options.  These sorts of greens, an example of which is a sage green with lots of white mixed into it, create the optimum atmosphere for knowledge work generally—one where people are calm and collected enough to focus on whatever they’re endeavoring to accomplish, but not so relaxed that they fall asleep—and the use of a light color on walls makes a space seem slightly larger than it does when a darker one is applied—that impression of extra size is generally a plus.   How many of us, particularly at home, are toiling away in a space that seems overly large?
  • Bring nature views front and center. Whether out the window or on the wall/desktop (in a photo, artwork, etc.), nature views help us both mentally refresh and to think more creatively.  Most people don’t have too many options or opportunities for changing the view outside their window, but if you’ll be looking at nature art or photographs, you have lots more ability to customize your “view.”  Gazing at a meadow on gently rolling hills, with groups of trees and water in sight is best, but lots of pictures “work.”
  • Showcase a few in-space plants. Having a few indoor, potted plants in view as we think enhances our creative performance.  Some of us need to exercise a little restraint with the plants, however.  Too many ups the visual complexity, or visual clutter, of the space we’re in to stress-inducing levels, which destroys our ability to think creatively.  The key to plant-use success is to curate a set of two or so plants that are in view at any one time, with each of those plants being maybe a few feet tall, although smaller or slightly larger can work as well.  The plants that will pay off, creativity -wise, are green and leafy, ones that have gently bending stems.
  • Are suffused with natural light. Natural light, without glare, is a sort of magic elixir for human brains, upping our mental performance generally and our creative thinking in particular.
  • Include warmer, dimmer light. When that natural light isn’t available (it does get to be night time everywhere, eventually), relatively warmer and relatively dimmer lighting is likely to enhance our creative performance.  The artificial light that you decide to use should always be the sort that might come from conventional light bulbs, the sort that you can buy at a regular store any day of the year—the bright red and orange and green and blue bulbs that are sold for holiday decorations stress people when put into everyday use.
  • Aren’t cluttered. Moderate visual complexity and enhanced professional performance go hand-in-hand.  But what is moderate visual complexity?  It’s using a well-managed set of colors and shapes in design elements, furniture, etc., and making sure that there seems to be some sort of apparent plan in how a space comes together.  Was this definition helpful?  Probably not.  So here’s a rule of thumb to use:  Research has shown that residential interiors designed by Frank Lloyd Wright have moderate visual complexity, so keep them in mind as you design and de-clutter.  And don’t try to cheat the visual complexity gods!  Gathering stuff up and putting it into a container, cabinet, drawer, etc., with transparent sides does nothing for you creativity-wise.  You don’t need to throw away things that are personally meaningful to you, you can rotate a few into view each month, putting the same number out of sight when you do.
  • Don’t scrimp on the curves. Seeing curves in the world around us, on the edges of furniture, in table shapes, etc. has been tied to enhanced creative performance. When you’re selecting from multiple rug options or wall coverings, etc., choose the ones with the curlicues not those in which triangles, hexagons, etc., form their straight line shapes into designs.
  • Cut out the distractions, audio, visual, and otherwise. Distractions=stress=> degraded creativity.
  • Smell right. A space is more than what it looks like.  Researchers have determined that people are more creative when they smell cinnamon-vanilla.  You knew there was a good reason to buy that cinnamon bun, didn’t you?
  • Ventilate from the right direction. Intriguing studies have shown that when the air flowing from HVAC systems blows on the fronts of our bodies we think more creatively than when it hits our backs.
  • Sound good. Studies link hearing the sounds of gently moving water to enhanced professional performance and all sorts of positive outcomes.  Tune the soundtrack (via online options, for example) to quietly, quietly playing nature soundtrack backdrops, the sorts you might find online that feature burbling brooks, gently rustling leaves and grasses, calm bird songs, to encourage creative thinking.
  • Provide options. When people feel that they have a comfortable level of control over their physical environment, all sorts of good things start to happen in our heads, one of which is thinking more creatively.  “Options” means we have a couple of situation-reasonable choices to choose from, not scads of choices.  For example, the lighting in a conference room should have 4 to 6 preset options that combine light color and intensity and not rotary dials that people could potentially use to tune into any technically possible color and intensity of light.  Research has shown that sometimes groups get a burst of creativity from simply relocating from one space to another; all else being equal, change alone, and the ability to decide to make a change, can be a plus. Groups and individuals get a creativity boost if they have privacy when they want it, and having privacy when desired is a sort of environmental control.  Privacy is different from being distraction free because privacy indicates a certain level of “say” in what situations people find themselves.  A person, for example, may not be able to hear or see other people, and therefore be distraction free, but if other people have the power to determine if the first set of individuals can see or hear them, there is no privacy, and it’s privacy that provides the big creativity pay off. Research has also linked being reclined with creative thinking, but reclining is clearly better at some stages of the creative process (e.g., those that don’t require much laptop typing) than others.  So, providing people with the option to recline is particularly desirable.
  • Align with the task at hand. When people don’t have the tools they feel they need to do whatever they’ve planned, they’re stressed and stress destroys creativity.  Research has also directly tied task-space design consistency with enhanced creativity.  Having needed tools is consistent with having creative thoughts.
  • Are awesome. Feeling awed makes us more creative, and we can be awed by a number of things—and the same thing can awe us multiple times.  Big is definitely awesome, but just as awesome as something that is very large, such as the inside of a cathedral, is the use of hard to work materials or exquisite workmanship.
  • Seem “well Taller ceilings and larger spaces/rooms have been tied to more creative thinking, but don’t go too big.  Ten foot ceilings are great, creativity-wise, but by the time ceilings get to be 12-feet tall they may be sending the signal “formal place” which can encourage people to act in, well, a more formal way, which can thwart creativity.  We link very tall ceilings to formal locations because in the course of our lives, when we’ve experienced them, we’ve been in a “dignified” setting, a government or cultural site lobby, for example.
  • Welcome walkers. A space facilitates walking when it gives people a place and a reason to walk—and when people get a move on they are likely to think more creatively.  Walkways are possible indoors and out.  Long hallways can become galleries, fit for a stroll, and alternate routes to refreshment hubs, etc., that allow for a few more steps can boost user creativity.
  • Give outdoor access. Outdoor access, in cities, suburbs, and countrysides, has been tied to enhanced creative performance.  Build in balconies and other outdoor spaces, even if you’re in the heart of the city, if you’d like to think even a little bit more creatively.
  • Communicate nonverbally. One of the most powerful ways that a space can support creative thinking is by communicating to users of a space, either symbolically or via actual words that it is an area where creativity will be especially prized.  Naming an area the “Creativity Zone,” for instance, does the trick here, but so does using whatever creativity-linked symbols members of the group will recognize.  If when a team is working creatively they say that they’re in “Blue Sky Mode,” for instance, art, or whatever, in spaces for creative thinking that feature clouds can be in order.
  • Speak “nostalgia. When nostalgic thoughts come to mind, people think more creatively—so get out those images of past camping trips and birthday parties!

Experiences that put us in a positive mood make it more likely we’ll think creatively and preferred experiences are apt to do just that.  So, if you’re working on a novel or a clever explanation for the tax folks about why some expense really should lead to a tax deduction, make sure you’re smelling the scents you like to smell, looking at your favorite art, etc.

When we’re thinking about spaces where we’re more likely to think creatively, it’s important to keep in mind that space design all by itself doesn’t determine if we think creatively or not.  Even if you do all the things noted above, you still won’t think creatively about quantum mechanics if you don’t actually know anything about quantum mechanics, for example.

There is so much neuroscience evidence to apply when developing creative spaces that it all couldn’t be presented here—contact me for more at

Sally Augustin, PhD, is a practicing environmental psychologist and a principal at Design With Science. She has extensive experience integrating science-based insights to develop recommendations for the design of places, objects, and services that support desired cognitive, emotional, and physical outcomes/experiences. Her clients include design firms, manufacturers, service providers, design user groups, and others, worldwide. Sally, who is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, is also the editor of Research Design Connections, a monthly newsletter with daily blog, that reports and synthesizes the findings of recent and classic research in neuroscience, cognitive science, and other social sciences that are useful to designers, all in everyday language. She is the author of several books and her work has been discussed in publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street. Dr. Augustin has written for the Harvard Business School Press and has talked about using design to enhance human performance and psychological wellbeing on mass-market national television and radio programs in the United States and in Europe as well as on and

Research Design Connections is an important research-based resource for practicing designers and researchers. It reports on findings from studies conducted by neuro-, social and physical scientists that designers and researchers can apply in their work. Subscribers are architects, interior designers, landscape architects, industrial designers, urban designers/planners, researchers, and others interested in how our experiences in the physical world influence how we think and behave.

Featured image: Kengo Kuma’s Nezu Museum, Tokyo
Above image: barn in South Bohemia
photographs by Tereza Stehlikova