Go to your happy place: creative space at work

As the chief design officer for Apple, Jony Ive is one of the most-celebrated and well-rewarded creative thinkers alive. He works from a glass cube, with a laptop and handful of coloured pencils.

While Apple is notoriously secretive about its design space and processes, reports have leaked out (warning: language NSFW) about the clean desk, lack of personal photos, a motivational poster of design advice (white type on black and peppered with profanity) and a Banksy screen print of a monkey with queen-like hair and jewels.

" Creativity and innovation are processes, rather than places."
Fiona Smith, Freelance leadership journalist

Are you getting the picture here? At the throbbing heart of one of the modern world’s most innovative companies is an (almost) blank space.

Missing are the “fun” elements which usually denote a creative workplace: the underfloor fish tanks, crazy-themed meeting rooms, slippery dips between floors and graffiti walls.

Apple is getting closer to moving its 13,000 head office employees into a new $US5 billion donut-shaped headquarters at Cupertino but, other than having a park in the middle for Frisbee and Segway polo, it would be fair to expect superb design with very little frivolity.

This is because creativity and innovation are processes, rather than places.


Innovation psychologist, Dr Amantha Imber, says creativity is defined by being both novel and useful. It is one of several ingredients necessary for innovation.

Innovation, on the other hand, is change that adds value.

“This is a very inclusive definition, because anyone is capable of making change,” she says. “But it is very hard to have innovation without a good dose of creativity.”

So, what kind of environment stimulates creativity?

Imber, founder of innovation consultancy Inventium, says we are more creative when we are calm - and so a good, attractive environment can help.

However, if people surrounded by pot plants, pool tables and healthy snacks are also stressed, overworked, surrounded by ‘toxic’ personalities and badly managed they will still find it difficult to come up with a good idea.

The task of changing behaviours and cultures is far more difficult and complex than merely redecorating an office, Imber says.

“We do see a lot of tokenistic gestures for creativity.”


“There are a lot of organisations that will invest in a tennis table or a foosball table or even some colourful beanbags for a meeting room and think ‘Bingo. We have created a culture of innovation’,” Imber says.

“It takes so much more than that. These tokenistic gestures don’t work, they are a waste of money and you would be far better off doing something like encouraging people to make a habit of going for walking meetings, where they can think creatively.”

Imber says employers have a problem if they don’t think deeply and holistically about a culture of innovation.

You also cannot just drop people into a great working environment with instructions to ‘be creative’ or ‘be innovative’. Education has generally done a pretty good job of sucking the creativity out of students and as adults they cannot just turn it on like a tap, she says.

Imber says research shows the benefits of training. With the right stimuli, tools and materials, people’s levels of creativity can be improved by 20 per cent to 50 per cent.

One of those tools, used with Virgin Australia, is a creative thinking technique called ‘the assumption crusher’. This involves thinking about the assumptions you may have about a project and then imagining what it would be like if the opposite were true.

For example, a designer may challenge the assumption a mobile phone must have 12 buttons to make a call. What would it look like if it only had one button? An iPhone?


Melbourne-based Planet Innovation has won The Australian Financial Review’s Most-Innovative Company award three times. It is a commercialisation consultancy and manufacturer.

Planet Innovation co-founder Stuart Elliott, says the least-innovative companies tend to be the ones which organise themselves into silos – where all the engineers are in one building, all the sales staff are somewhere else and the marketing people segregated from everyone else.

“I the past two years, we have worked for a lot of US companies – medical device companies and they are all really bad at innovation,” he says. “They stifle it. The best way to stifle it, in my opinion, is to create buildings full of clones.”

Elliott says in his company innovation is not so much about creativity or one brilliant idea, and is more about people of different backgrounds talking to each other about a problem.

“Looking at a problem in a different way is what innovation is all about.”

While Elliott says he would never knock employers for providing great, fun workspaces, he says those environments.

“But I think it has absolutely zero impact on creativity.”


Nevertheless, organisations have been busy redesigning the workspace over the past 40 years: knocking down private offices in the name of collaboration, taking people from bullpen cubicles to face-to-face open plan desks and then, to cut real estate costs, moving to activity-based working where no-one has a space to truly call their own.

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical doctor and healthy brain advocate who works with organisations to boost mental performance and she says people need some quiet spaces to think.

"Working in cubicles in an open plan office is my idea of hell," she admits.

"It certainly doesn't help divergent thinking or imagination or creativity when you are desperately trying to block out all those other distracting noises and just get on with the work you have got to do.”

The overly-neat working spaces, encouraged by activity based working and packing up every afternoon, are also not recommended for creativity – whatever Jony Ive may think.

“It’s now thought that having a slightly messy desk is very helpful to allow that process of more divergent thought and looking for those links and associations to come up with new ideas,” Brockis says.

What she is taking about are those ideas that spring to mind when you come across something by chance, a stray note or magazine article, perhaps hiding under a book on your desk.


It is not just a well-intentioned but ineffective working environment which can kill creativity. The pace, busyness and growing areas of responsibility are also robbing people of the headspace to think.

“There is too much work, too much ongoing pressure and there is always this sense of time poverty,” Brockis says.

The most frequent question she is now asked is about how to deal with being overwhelmed at work.

"People are saying that we need to be more innovative and creative at work and then [employers] make it almost impossible for them to do that because there is all this pressure of other stuff to be done,” she says.

“This makes it really difficult for the brain to be in that slightly dissociated state which is required to let our minds go off and wander.

“That [dissociated state] is the time when we are more likely to come up with that brilliant idea. And we know the shower is sometimes the best place to be creative.”

To get the most from their brains, people need to be well rested (getting enough sleep), unstressed and feeling safe), they need to be able to concentrate on one task at a time and break their day up unto ‘chunks’, with breaks in between.

People also need to get up and move to stimulate blood flow to the brain and release brain chemicals, Brockis says.

"We are starting to see more employers recognise that tired employees are really a menace. In the same way we don't tolerate people turning up drunk to work, we tolerate people who are tired – but the impact on their cognition is about the same.”


KISS (keep it simple stupid) and Chunk. This means breaking down complex ideas to understand them and then chunking them into elements or tasks easier to handle.

Choose to be less busy. Now there's a notion.

Monotask (such a lovely thing to do)

Triple filter, more if you can, to sift out the golden nuggets of information you want to keep and discard the tailings.

Use technology to help. Adaptive interfaces are being designed by researchers at Tufts University and elsewhere as an aid in reducing detail and simplifying data being presented.

Take time out. A holiday or a break.

Source: Dr Jenny Brockis

Fiona Smith is a freelance journalist who writes on leadership, specialising in careers, management and company culture.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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