Your Creative Space is your Extended Super Brain

A couple of years ago, when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life I studied psychology for a semester. Though I did not pursue this field, there is one lecture which I remember quite vividly. It was part of the cognitive psychology series and in one session the professor walked in and claimed “I bet you I can remember twenty two-digit numbers”. So we started shouting numbers at him, 65!, 14!, 91! and we wrote them down in a little row while he did not write anything but stared out of the window for a moment after every number. At the end, as you may guess, he recited all twenty of them in the right order.

You may know how he did this because it is exactly the way most memory techniques work. Based on a geographical scheme, he had made up little visual stories that would be much easier to remember than just numbers. In this case, the professor had defined ten locations in his apartment for the first digit and ten animals or objects for the second, both of which would form a little story. So, if “one” is his bed and “four” is cat, then maybe “fourteen” is a cat ripping apart his pillow.

I find it fascinating how such a simple technique was able to equip my completely normal professor with something that feels almost like a superpower.

Years later I realized that the basic concept of such memory techniques is the same technique that we leverage in our creative spaces. Innovation is messy and most projects contain more information than you could possibly have on your plate at a given time. The creative space is a geographically structured extension of our brain that increases its capacity. Plus, it is an extension that we can share with a team, which we can look at and work on together.

If we follow this idea, it has some very practical consequences for the way we design spaces for innovation:

  1. Spaces need to be flexible and changeable in order to accommodate information in the structure that the team desires.
  2. They need room for data. That is, space for physical information like walls, windows or whiteboards. Only if the team can bathe in the data, it will be able to go back to useful information and discover new connections.
  3. Thirdly, spaces need to be consistent over the duration of a creative process. Does that mean you need a room for every innovation project that your organization is doing? Not necessarily, this consistency can easily be improvised by having mobile whiteboards or cheap cardboard boards which save the status of the project and are pulled out in the next session.

But, is space even that relevant? Honestly, I don’t know if the great lengths that some organizations go in designing their space pay off. Yet I’ve observed that in organizations that want to transform and pursue different ways of working, space is often a visible statement for a new working culture. Spaces send strong signals and have the power to encourage or discourage behaviors, so we might as well be mindful of these signals.

Think about the signals that your classical conference space sends:

The big wooded table says “I’ve always been here and I will stay here”; maybe it is a rectangular table and it says “at the short edge sits someone with power”; it may also say “look I have lots of surface where you can flip open your laptop and read E-Mails while being barely physically present in this meeting”.

Meanwhile the chairs say “We’re comfortable! Sit back, relax, enjoy the show and be passive.”

And the flipchart might say “I’m great for one person to explain the world to everyone else, but please don’t collaborate through me.”

If your space is the way it has always been, your teams will work the way they have always worked.

Therefore some practical hints, especially considering that not everyone has massive budget for space design.

  1. Dare to throw stuff out. The evil table for example.
  2. Create spaces that are flexible, that offer vertical surfaces and inspire people to work in an active posture.
  3. Don’t be intimidated by the beautiful offices that other companies have. Take your team, go to IKEA and create the space that supports your desired way of working.

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This is the summary of a slam talk I gave at Corporate Startup Summit in July 2015. Photo by Karolin.