Creativity at Work

Episode 39

Creativity at Work

A design strategist, a data strategist and an architecture professor walk into a bar…no, they’ll be sharing research and reflections on creativity and how creative intelligence might be positively impacted by the workplace environment. It’s a mind-expanding course in environmental psychology and nuanced definitions of creativity. Find a comfortable space to listen

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"To study and understand the impact of an environment takes a long time. We find if our whole world is designed and we don't understand how it's going to impact people, we sort of miss the mark. We're constantly trying to understand from our perspective, when we do something what is the consequence, and from a creativity standpoint, really understanding that, alongside many other kinds of human behaviors."


CCB: [00:00:00] Welcome to the ONEder podcast. This is your host CCB and today we're going to have a conversation with one of our 2021 ONEder Grant award winning teams. I'm really excited to make these introductions today because the topic is something that a lot of us have been ONEdering about, creativity. What promotes creativity? What's the definition of creativity? We've got three folks today that are going to help us understand how creativity and the built environment can work together more effectively. So I'd like to introduce Rebecca Milne, Bob Condia and Hanna Negami from the team Perkins Eastman. Rebecca, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you come to this place?

Rebecca M: [00:00:47] Great. Thanks, CCB. Yeah, as mentioned, my name is Rebecca Milne, and I'm the director of design strategy for Perkins Eastman, and would say a long love of creativity and trying to discover what makes us tick. My background is in neuropsychology and architecture, and Bob, Hanna and I and team have been researching together for some time and, something to that effect… We have a lot to share.

CCB: You have a huge amount to share.

Rebecca M: [00:01:17] Too much share!

Bob C: [00:01:22] I'm Bob Condia. I'm an architect and a college professor and a studio critic for nearly 40 years. I think I started looking at creativity some time ago when the first thing they told me when I got this job was ‘no one can teach creativity’. And I thought, oh my God, you know, I've failed before I started. And I found that that's simply not true, that that's something which is a set of skills like a craft. And in fact, we can teach it. The question here today is, what kind of places help afford that?

CCB: [00:02:00] Excellent. And Hanna. Hanna, one of the hardest working researchers in the Oneder Grant 2021 team. Tell us about yourself.

Hanna N: [00:02:09] Hi. Yeah, I'm Hanna. I work as a data strategist in the Perkins Eastman Design Strategy Studio, and my background is in psychology. I have a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Waterloo, and my research expertise is on how the built environment can affect people's moods, behaviors and cognition. So that's sort of my perspective on all this.

CCB: [00:02:45] Area of expertise. And it's going to come in very handy when we start talking about why are you doing this research and why is it important? And we've kind of referenced some of the contextual reasons why it's important. But Rebecca, how about if you tell us a little bit more?

Rebecca M: [00:03:03] Sure. I mean, I think in starting about this, creativity is really paramount now, and kind of this unicorn for everyone of how do we achieve that? Especially when we're in a world where knowledge work and technological innovation are really the drivers of economic growth, well-being, satisfaction. But how do we really get there? I think often now people think about creativity and they're like, okay, a space is creative. And you might think, okay, it has a slide and a beanbag, so it means it's creative, but is that really in fact making it more creative? And I think oftentimes there's these tropes that we have about a focus space or a creative space or any of these types of spaces, but a lot of the time that hasn't been well founded in a lot of research or understanding. And so for us, we really want to understand and maybe perhaps debunk some myths along the way of what makes people most creative. And with that, with some of these driving goals, as we know, it's one of the biggest skills that people are looking for. How do we really achieve it? I think it's also really interesting and top of mind right now is that, you know, when we're thinking about should we go back to the office, should we work at home, should we work elsewhere? How, in that respect, why would people come back into the office if they're more creative elsewhere or things of that nature? So, thinking about ways that we can imbue our environments to make them as conducive as possible, I think is important.

CCB: [00:04:33] Hey, Bob, you with all of your years of working with architecture students and folks that clearly are focused on a level of creativity, what's your perspective on where have creative minds done their best work?

Bob C: [00:04:50] Maybe a good term that we haven't used much is a notion of agency, where being able to manipulate or control or create this little mini world in which you find yourselves to do the work. I guess one of the one of the battles in the modern world is to get people out of the box and back into their heads, and to recognize that this is a very personal relationship that we have with the craft of being creative. And so much of the work of our studio is just bringing people closer to their own kind of minds, and their own strengths and skills. A number of misconceptions that exist about creativity, often the notion of medium doesn't come into play. And there is no creativity outside of the medium of the individual. There's a lot of science that talks about how civil engineering they’ve tried to eliminate iteration, which, of course architects think is what the whole thing is about. And they say, well, we gave our subjects a ten-minute introduction into the software and then told them to go be creative and CCB here's a saxophone, go play jazz. And when I put it that way, everybody knows this is a ridiculous idea. But in many ways the mystery of creativity is that it just happens for some people and not for others. And that's just not the case. It has to do with how we can set ourselves up. I think one of the things we support with the experiment here was that what is called hominess, I might argue, is really a notion of agency. That if people can bring something of their personality where they feel comfortable and relaxed, this now helps me to be a creative person.

CCB: [00:06:49] I'm going to just jump in here and say so we're talking about creativity. And creativity has a very large…it's a huge word. It might even be a buzzword. But did you want to help us understand your definition of creativity within this framework of research?

Hanna N: [00:07:07] Yeah. Well, Bob kind of alluded to this idea of creativity as being sort of an elusive abstract concept that is sort of shrouded in mystery. But there's actually a lot of research behind creativity, and it's been sort of defined and structured and, you know, into different types of creativity and phases of creativity. And within the sort of psychological research creativity community, there isn't a set definition of creativity. But one definition that a lot of researchers do agree on is that creativity is the generation of ideas that are both novel or original or innovative, and valuable or appropriate or useful to a certain situation. So that's kind of like the intersection of ideas where creativity lies. There's also different types of creativity, such as divergent and convergent thinking. So divergent thinking would be the generation of ideas responding to an open-ended problem. So, like how many different uses can you think of for a brick or a piece of paper, that kind of thing? And then there's convergent thinking where you're sort of picking out that best idea. This is out of all those ideas; this one is the best one. And as Bob also said, creativity is an iterative process. And there's been some work breaking down creativity into distinct stages. So, for example, one sort of conceptualization of those stages is defined as preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. So, preparation is where you kind of immerse yourself in a research problem or a creative problem. Incubation is a more unconscious or subconscious process where you kind of let those ideas marinate in the back of your mind, and then illumination is that sort of ‘aha’ or ‘eureka’ moment that's you might think of when you think of creativity. And then verification is, is kind of that conversion process that I just talked about where you're evaluating or refining that creative idea.

CCB: [00:09:49] I'm going to jump in here for just a second and I'm going to go off on a little bit of a tangent. But I want to say Rebecca, Perkins Eastman has a director of research, of design research? I mean, tell us a little bit about why you would even be involved in this type of work. Why does a firm commit resources to individuals and to the research time? What's the outcome for the firm?

Rebecca M: [00:10:21] So yeah, I think that's a great question. I would say in general, I think there is a vested interest, which is why our department exists, to really understand how spaces affect human behavior and performance in general. And I would say in consequence, there's actually very limited research out there to understand, like and I Hanna and I were just talking about this this morning or yesterday, but the field of environmental psychology only really started in the 1970s. And it's really study and understand the impact of an environment takes a long time and there's just not a lot of people actually conducting this type of work. Where we find if our whole world is designed and we don't understand how it's going to impact people, we sort of miss the mark. So, I would say we're constantly trying to understand from our perspective, when we do something what is sort of the consequence and not that it's perfect and there's you know, it's a long road ahead, but we would say this is just part of our path from a creativity standpoint, really understanding that alongside many other kind of human behaviors as well.

CCB: [00:11:35] Excellent. So, then you decide that there's going to be this particular study, and we'd love to understand how you put together the process with your university professor of architecture and your research assistant. Who wants to start in on what did you do?

Hanna N: [00:11:57] Yeah. Well, I guess I'll just, I'll just start by sort of framing our research question, which is, you know, there's, there is a bit of work on how the environment affects creativity. There's not a lot, but there certainly isn't any work out there looking at how the built environment can affect those different phases of creativity that I described, or different types of the creative process. So, we wanted to look at how, you know, the built environment shapes creativity in those nuanced ways and also how those relationships might change based on who's occupying that space.

CCB: [00:12:43] Yeah, Bob.

Bob C: [00:12:44] So I’d just say that I think designers know this basic formula that we set out. So, saturation, incubation, do something and then evaluate it. But we're not, I think we're looking at it as what is the space of this. So, saturation becoming expert in your own problem, your own discussion, your own whatever, whatever this thing we have to design and figure out. And saturation means just that, so that we're pushing it into the subconscious because it's not a conscious thing where we imagine quite literally, it's not conscious how we imagine a solution. So then in order to imagine this solution, we might visualize it if we're like Einstein and we have experiments that we can do in our head. But most of us as designers are moving pencils or doing something in front of us, and we have to be masters of that medium of expression. And so, saturation is really good to occur in a group where we can be together, we can talk through something and then take away, Again, I think we know this. And then to incubate, well, that's private and to do something, well, that depends. One of the most critical aspects of creativity is what happens when something comes into presence. You used to call this a gift of intuition. So, what happens there? And if it's supported, it might be something that moves up and moves along. And this is what studio critics do. Gee CCB, that's a crazy idea. Okay, great. That's fantastic. Let's see where you could do that. And then evaluation also is if that's, if that's set in a solo performance, then it has no audience and it has no way of kind of becoming evaluated because bad intuitions come much more frequent than good ones. So, we need to evaluate them. And this this really moves the work where we're back together. So, you have to two conditions where to be with people is beneficial and then two conditions where we really could be sitting at home or something like that.

CCB: [00:14:55] I think it's interesting that this particular study and focusing on creativity as the output, is mirroring a lot of Rebecca you talked about it earlier, this coming back to a workplace and coming back together and what types of activities are going to take place. And these are not, they're not unique and they're not unusual in the types of, the what's the word I want, actual processing that's taking place in the different spaces. So, if you've got all this this thought around it, what was the actual process of the study? The research?

Hanna N. [00:15:43] Should I take that one?

CCB: [00:15:44] Yeah!

Hanna N.: [00:15:46] Yeah. So, we decided to build an app that would survey people in their environments and about their creative process. And we kind of took a cue from this app called Mappiness. I don't know if you've heard of it, CCB, but it's this this app where it sort of mapped people's happiness across locations. And this method, it's called experience sampling. It's used in in psychology research where you're kind of asking people what they're doing in the moment, rather than asking them to remember back to what they were doing some time ago. So anyway, we, we built this app with a survey that would ask creative professionals twice a day about where they were and what they were doing, and how they felt. So, we collected data on qualities of their workspaces, things like, you know, is it beautiful? Do you see nature around you? How homey does it feel? And then about their creative process. So, things like, you know, are you working on a creative problem right now? Do you feel inspired? Are you having a moment of insight? And then how are you feeling? And so, we collected data from One Workplace employees because we wanted to start with a sample of creative professionals to sample people as they were doing something creative. And we found that we actually found that hominess of a space was associated with specific aspects of creativity. So, we found that if a space was homey, so did it make you feel at home? Did it feel personalized, and did it look natural? So those qualities were associated with moments of creative inspiration, illumination, so that aha moment that I talked about and with verification. So, working to refine a creative problem.

CCB: [00:18:09] I'm thinking right now about another project that One Workplace was approached to be involved with. And unfortunately, it went to a certain level and then it did not move forward. But there was an idea about creating an app that was wherever you were, marking how you felt about the space. And opening it up so that so that in the nature of the viral and proximity, that if I would know where there were those types of spaces that had the attributes that I was looking for that made me feel. So it's, it's, yeah, it's curious the way that people are coming at it. But, and then what types of results or information are the result. So, I'd love for you all to share what are the some of the surprising things that you learned in this and in the context of what your, what your thoughts were coming into the process. How about let's start with Rebecca.

Rebecca M: [00:19:27] Well, I think I think it's really interesting, especially in. I wasn't in the sea of sort of flipping to free address. I would say, like after the pandemic. It's sort of curious that so many people are now thinking about the office as sort of a place to meet, which makes sense. And perhaps some of the focus work is done at home and kind of taking away personal artifacts and things within the office. And yet it being sort of this incubation space for innovation and creativity in the, at the same time. With that that same token, I feel like we found, you know, yes, the plant part and natural aspect, I feel like wasn't as surprising to me. But the aspect that having personal artifacts and it feeling agency, as Bob was saying, over the face and it feeling that you were at home and also probably being more private as well, in fact, maybe is more conducive to creativity than being in a sea of people at that time. And so perhaps thinking about creativity, as we were also saying at the different stages, that it maybe is for one part of creativity, but maybe other parts are more conducive to other environments or other types of spaces. And also thinking about that, that form of agency over space, what that really means to your feelings over that space and how you behave in that space as well.

CCB: [00:20:56] Yeah. Bob, you mentioned in the stages of creation, the nature of the collaborative piece that is kind of ideating on those brainstorming ideas and that that feels like it speaks to the more collaborative environment. However, that's not the kind of the direction that this particular study went. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Bob C: [00:21:29] You mentioned that word brainstorming. We know that that makes people feel good, but it doesn't really move ideas very well forward. That actually astute criticism of the work, moves people forward. And I think that's part of what I mentioned before this, this nurturing of an idea when it comes into presence. I mean if it's the notion of intuition that says it's a gift that came from nowhere. We've never seen this before. So how do we know how to critique it? How do we know if it's any good or not? And this is really the least, in my experience, the drug of designing. That this is pretty good stuff. Where'd that come from? I don't know. It's a gift, that's great. What do we do with it now? And so how do we bring work that's now present and move it to where it might become something useful and thoughtful and careful? And again, most of it's no good. So, if you're by yourself, then you can fool yourself into believing that this is really a great idea. This is one of the dilemmas you run into with people who keep everything inside their computer. I love my great ideas, they're all in my little box. Now that it has to come out of the box before we can begin to debate it and discuss it. So, this is a really interesting human dynamic about how we move stuff forward.

CCB: [00:23:00] Having said that, I was thinking about some of the some of your earlier references in different conversations that you have had over the time of the research. And I will put a caveat in here, that I had the fortunate responsibility of being the One Workplace kind of “coach” to the Perkins Eastman team. So, I heard more of the process during the process as opposed to just reading the research at the end. But I was thinking about all the different places that have fostered creative ideas or concepts or novel ideas and concepts. So, there's that set of places that you have talked about, and then there's Omicron and the constraints that were placed on this particular study by virtue of our need to be not in in public places or gathering places. So, who wants to talk about the kind of that polarity?

Hanna N: [00:24:09] Yeah, I'll talk about that. Yeah. I'm glad you brought that up because I think it's important to contextualize our results. So, we when we collected our data, it was kind of at the height of the Omicron Wave when people were back working at home mostly. So, you know that definitely puts a bias on our results because most people, I think we found it was like 75 or 80% of the time people were at home when they were answering our surveys. So, you know, this result that we found about hominess and creativity, I think we have to follow it up with more data collection, with more different settings, different people to see if we still find that, because, you know, is it the fact that there is a meaningful relationship between hominess and creativity, or did we sort of happen to sample people when they were home in homey settings? But I think, you know, having said that, there is, there are, there has been writing on being at home and having personal items around you, suggesting that that does promote creativity. For example, you know, the psychologist Csikszentmihalyi has written about having artifacts, personal artifacts around you actually helps reinforce your sense of self through reflecting your values and your identity through personal artifacts, which I think is really interesting. Especially in the in the light of a lot of workspaces becoming less personalized with the free address seating models that Rebecca mentioned.

Rebecca M: [00:26:04] Yeah, I would just add on to what Hanna saying, I think what's interesting is that the same time when space has become maybe less personalized in a corporate setting, digital platforms have become more personalized. And the amount of algorithms I think in place for it to be totally catered to all of your wants and needs. I think we're at a stage where I think that will only skyrocket as we move forward, and should that same attention not be paid to the environments, that one would pay to all your preferences, let's say, on your Netflix account or something else or your Amazon profile or things of that nature, as we kind of look to spaces in the future as well.

CCB: [00:26:43] Hmm. That that's such a big kind of idea. And it makes me start thinking about metaverse and what we are ultimately digital twinning or however that is going to.. And, and I will also put in a little note here. In one of my past lives, I was the director, the head of global workplace for Accenture, the very beginning of it. And one of the things that, two of the curious findings that we had in our workplace team was we did create a home or that personal space for the higher levels within the organization. So if you were a partner and we took away, we used your office for free address, we had maps of what it looked like when you were there and when you said you were coming In, the workplace “genies” would come and set up your family portraits and your plants wherever you want it. So, you came back into that, which was an interesting kind of exercise. The other thing that we recognized was in the nature of free address, the disruption to your standard approach to “I walk down this hallway, I turn and sit in this particular location, I look out that window. The disruption of having to move someplace else actually did spark some additional thinking that was that creative thinking or was that desperate, you know, reality thinking, I don't know. But because we didn't go as far into that as we might have. But you start thinking about what next. There's this project and the learnings that you are deriving and the continuing, I will assume, and I'm going to ask you to say what is next? And then what does that look like even moving further? So what's the near term next, Hanna?

Hanna N: [00:28:46] Well, I just wanted to I what you just said sparked a question for me, which is, yeah, I think it's interesting. You're talking about like people moving to a new seat every day. And is that helping creativity or promoting it? And yeah, I think it could be, you know, like, are they sort of gathering inspiration from a novel, having a novel seat and view from there from their desk? Or is that extra sort of mental resource being taken up, which is preventing them from really focusing on creative work. I think it's like these kinds of nuanced questions that I'm excited to continue to pursue with our research.

Rebecca M: Yeah. I mean, I don't know for Bob, I think also, really understanding the relationship of, I feel like we've just kind of scratched the surface of creativity in space with our small sample size and trying to understand the limitations of our current study. But we think there's a lot there. I think that there's a lot to understand. And even just unpacking what this might mean for not just workplace but any type of environment.

And sort of, if creativity is almost this gold standard, I was saying for basically everyone who doesn't want to be more creative. How do we do that and how do we do that in a city? How do you do that in a school and a workplace in different ways? And what does that mean for maybe in different cultures or in different personality types and things of that nature? So the sky is almost the limit, but I feel like taking it sort of one step at a time of where to go next. Bob?

Bob C: [00:30:35] So the science will tell us that if, if you want to make sure that students don't pass test, take them in another room then where they learn the information and put them in a different seat. So, when people are looking around the room for the answer, they are looking around the room for the answer. Because if they can reconstruct when that information came into their head with what they see if they're staring up in the corner of the room. So the brain makes memories very much like it maps, places and things. And so the idea that moving around is a good thing in terms of information, probably in terms of creativity, it's really should be understood as a verb. And in that case, then moving around could be pretty good because it's about agency. We've talked about ambiguity and other things. We're really, really wondering what kind of kind of spaces help people to do things and that it might actually have more to do with your posture than the place, being able to lean back, put your feet up and look at a screen. But a couple of things are kind of left out of the equation that should be important and probably obvious to good designers.

Bob C: [00:31:59] One is your victims of the medium of your work. If you're working inside a computer, that means you're good at working inside a computer. Doesn't mean you can draw, doesn't mean you can think well in other ways. So, we're always victimized by the tools in which we are operating. And the second is that that has a lot to do with personality in terms of kind of professional goals. So, a designer shop is going to look different than an engineer shop. We've been teasing that we'd really like to study engineers now just to kind of see what the opposite of whatever it was we got this time,if I can put it that way. And so, to be a good engineer is a particular frame of mind or particular personality, and it's a different kind of creativity and what space supports that endeavor? So, to move it from a kind of noun, people think creativity is a thing, but really it's an activity. And so, what can we do to support the active engagement with our own minds?

CCB: [00:32:56] Yeah. Wow. You have given us an enormous amount to think about. I'm going to say we are coming to the very end., so is there anything else that. Well, first off, let me say all of the research will be available on the Perkins Eastman web page on the ONEder grant section of our website. So, there's the full research report will be there access again to this podcast and abstract as well as references to some of their of the comments that they've made, some of the folks that they've referenced. And I believe there also is a reading list that they have to suggest. So that will all be available. Now, having said that, what parting words would you like this audience to take away thinking about your work on Creativity at Work? Hanna, I'm going to start with you.

Rebecca M: [00:33:56] I don't know. I feel like there's so much that we could like, so much more that we could say. I guess I'll just say that this process has been really fun, and we're all really grateful to One Workplace for the grant and the opportunity. And yeah, excited to continue on with this research.

CCB: [00:34:23] Bob. I'm going to let Rebecca end up.

Bob C: [00:34:25] Yeah, good idea. Well, one of the things we tracked as we were working on this was a podcast by Annie Murphy Paul, and she's a science writer. And she wrote a thing called The Extended Mind. And kind of two things that really come to the forefront, that sort of the brain is an evolved organ. And it evolved outdoors. It didn't evolve indoors. And so, we really need to recognize that as part of the equation. And the other is to talk about what do we mean by productivity? And part of this discussion is sitting and staring at the screen and trying to make things happen really doesn't fit that evolved brain. And so, to be able to feel comfortable in your environment by having familiarity around it and being able to get up and walk around, actually makes you more productive in any creative sense. And I thought that was a pretty good summary of what we discovered or if not discovered, at least reinforced with the data that we have.

Rebecca M: [00:35:34] Yeah. I think building off with Bob, the thinking from Annie Murphy Paul with the extent of mind as well was that, you know, we've been sort of designing environments, thinking that our brains are machines, but they're not, as Bob mentioned. We've, we are we are not machines and we're nothing like machines. And the creative process, I think, is indicative of that. And she also refers to that. We're kind of loopy in nature. We're kind of creatures of just looping through thoughts and ideas and things. And there's not sort of this perfect antidote or kind of machine-like timeline of what that means. But oftentimes I think this idea that brain as computer has been so widespread throughout time, that people often think of us like that. But I think it's important to challenge these assumptions. And I would say in sort of thinking about the future, I think, and this is indicative of that, is there's a lot of work to do to understand our environments. And I think it's important to say, look at an environment and sort of challenge our beliefs of what is and what isn't, and what makes us productive, what makes us creative, what makes us innovative. These are all really large questions. And I think if you ask anybody ‘what's a focus space?” they have a picture in their mind and yet is at the right picture? And I think often just challenging these assumptions that we have in our mind and these pictures, we have to make sure that we're really understanding the impact of these environments for the future.

CCB: [00:37:09] Excellent, excellent final words from our Perkins Eastman team. I want to say thank you again so much for your participation and the insights that you're sharing with not only One Workplace, but with our entire community. Letting everyone know that this podcast is available on all the streaming services. Listen in to the ONEder podcast, there are five grant award winners this year, and each one of them has a different angle on how space and people and cultures and communities integrate and thrive. So, thank you very much for joining us and we'll look forward to talking to you again soon.