Desks, Where Creativity Goes To Die

Along with many thousands of others, I attended SXSW this month. And while there, I learned some important lessons (other than "exercise patience while waiting in line, AGAIN," and "don’t eat barbecue every meal for 5 days."). These lessons came from the panels I attended, but they were not from anything said within the panels. Rather, they had to do with what I discovered about the types of content I should be seeking. 

Initially, I tried to attend talks or panels directly related to my industry and clients, but each time the information felt like things I already knew, and instead of feeling inspired, I just felt tired.

But as soon as I stepped outside my little world, everything changed. From Ray Kurzweil’s mind-blowing keynote about how we’re all becoming robots (at least that was more or less the gist), to getting to meet an actual robot, Bina 48, to hearing author Michelle Haimoff discuss her new novel as part of Google Play’s Author Series at the Android House, the best things I saw were not about branding, or web design, or startups.

By seeking information and experiences that had nothing to do with my day-to-day, the conference became far more worthwhile. I was stretching my brain in new ways. I felt intellectually stimulated and energized. And guess what? It ended up inspiring me to think about my own work differently. It was a total turnaround from my first couple of days at the conference, and it got me thinking about other ways that we can step outside our comfort zones to stimulate fresh thinking.

1. Leave the office. 

I know a lot of creative people are aware of this idea in theory, but I’m not sure how many put it into practice. Every time I am having trouble writing a strategy for a client, or coming up with a new name or headline, the answer never comes sitting at my desk. At my computer, when I’m stuck, my mind and mouse start wandering to Facebook, and then email, and then back to Facebook. I’ve checked Facebook four times writing this article!

But if I get up to take a walk or get a coffee, the pressure is off and my mind becomes free to focus (it sounds counterintuitive, but it works). I have a client who used to jokingly send me into the hall if we were trying to solve something. The same is of course true for travel and time off, but even on a very small scale, leaving your personal space for just a few minutes can make a huge difference in generating new ideas. So don’t underestimate the power of a change in scenery.

2. Don’t specialize. 

At my branding and design consultancy, we often have clients ask to see what else we’ve done in their category. And we have to explain to them that we’ve purposely stayed broad in terms of the types of clients we work with, to avoid the pitfalls that come from doing the same thing over and over again. Within every category, there’s so much imitation and repetition: It’s why every fashion site ends up looking like every other fashion site, and every bakery ends up with the same cutesy logo. But by broadening our portfolio, we don’t rip ourselves off. It’s how we’re able to bring fresh thinking and produce ideas that are truly differentiated. The answer is not to be a dilettante, but I do think it’s worthwhile (and more fun) to spread your work and talent across different scopes and processes.    

3. Stop reading business books. 

Okay, there are some business books that are really great, and I’m not saying NEVER to read them. But if that’s all you’re reading, I will kindly suggest that you’re wasting your time. In general, you learn so much more about business from doing than from reading about it. Fiction, on the other hand (or interesting nonfiction that’s not about your industry), exposes you to new worlds and new perspectives. It reveals things about yourself and doesn’t just give you new information that’s in one ear and out the other—it actually gets you to think differently, which applies to everything you do. That’s why I’m always more excited about potential job candidates with degrees in things like French literature or neuroscience than marketing and communications. 

We all work so hard, and it’s very easy to live exclusively inside that bubble—attending events, reading, even socializing solely within our own professional circles. But there’s tremendous power in cross-pollination, and in experience for experience’s sake. When you set out to do things that have no direct implications for your job, i.e. as soon you stop trying, that’s when true inspiration comes.  

[Image: Flickr user Katie Weilbacher]

Add New Comment


  • Terry Maynard

    Leave the office is so important!  It's been proven that a variety of tactile stimulus (sights, sounds, smells) stimulated creativity.  Working at CIBC Learning Systems I asked a VP why the bank purchased a $25,000,000 retreat centre in King City.  The answer was "managers need to get out of the office and learn to play, this stimulates creativity and ultimately business solutions, Hubert St. Onge".
    Being self-employed my USB mobile internet stick is my freedom from the office.  I'm typing this comment during a 3-day road trip in Northern Ontario.  Often I do my best work in my Boler Camper trailer, my sail boat, or in the middle of the woods.  Even Second Cup at King and Bay works!  Leave the office!

  • Reed Pankratz

    Great post! The creative process can be frustrating in itself, it gets harder when you don't set yourself up for success. Combining "leave the office" and "stop reading business books" I would say that the classroom is also a place that stunts creativity. It isn't supposed to be like that, but just think of the structure. I wrote about how students need to "Be Careful In The Classroom" here --> 

    Thanks for bringing up these issues. As I move out of the classroom and into the office I will sure to keep your tips in mind. 

    Reed Pankratz

  • Nisha N.S

    A refreshingly different perspective on how to be super efficient and productive. Leave desk, get a coffee, read fiction..great to clear your mind.

  • byron

    <that’s about="" always="" and="" candidates="" communications.="" degrees="" excited="" french="" in="" i’m="" job="" like="" literature="" marketing="" more="" neuroscience="" or="" potential="" than="" things="" why="" with="">

    No offense, Emily. But where does that leave the rest of us who already have our degrees in marketing, communications, or political science for that matter?</that’s>

  • Emily Heyward

     Hi Byron - Thanks for your comment. I never meant to imply that these degrees were not valuable, and if that's how it came across, I apologize. I was simply trying to encourage those who (like me) weren't sure of their career path when they chose their field of study. But personally I would never judge any candidate based on their degree alone, and I hope other employers feel the same way!

  • Richard Clunan

    I find combining 2 things there works well...after working on a problem: read something completely different, then go get some different scenery. Then the idea pops up :)

    Richard Clunan

  • 1234

    I agree with the third point you made. Well, the article too. But I'm talking about the third point in particular: '3. ... That’s why I’m always more excited about potential job candidates with degrees in things like French literature or neuroscience than marketing and communications,' because sometimes others can bring in new territories for your ideas. In other words, you know how to adapt them but they have new ideas from a different perspective.
    Plus, this is the first time I see that anybody mention this idea when talking about creativity. :)

  • Dr Maharaja SivaSubramanian N

    I agree with the views presented. In fact I have tested and found out repeatedly that the best way to succeed in today's economy is innvation especially through cross integration.

    Dr Maharaja SivaSubramanian N

  • Guest

    I had the fortune of my 'offices' being a laboratory, and then a studio.  Large places to pace about when thinking things through.  Even so, getting out for a walk is a great recharge, (sometimes a short drive to waterway, or lake is on order).  

    If you're one whose stuck in a cubicle and you get breaks, then use them as intended.  Don't get cup of coffee and come back to surf the net or wait it out.  Get out, take a walk, get some sun.  Reset.

  • Steven Severn

    Creativity doesn't always have to appear when psychically removing yourself from your desk, but it can be found at your desk space. The whole point of this article is to separate yourself from the problem to clear your head, so why don't you stop what you are doing and do some 'creative websurfing.' I am stifled daily in my creative efforts, but I've found some of my greatest inspiration through blogs such as www.GuerrillaCheeseMarketing.c... and

    Sites & blogs like these contain some of the best unconventional creative case studies in the industry.

    I remember a saying that said "Creative people are more deceiving because they stretch out boundaries." This article reminded me of that saying because if you let your mind become stagnate, nothing expectational can ever be formed.

  • Charles Cousins

    An awesome article! Thanks. Get out there and look at stuff. Read some comics, or at least look at cool pictures. Contemporary art is a great inspiration for me. And the weirder the movie, the better the brain juices get flowing. Think absurdly as much as you can, and don't worry about it being relevant. It doesn't have to be. It will get your head in the right headspace. Go one an urban walkabout, even for 20 minutes.

  • raj nataraj

    Walking is my best way to reflect on things or to have a quality one-on-one time, which you won't get in a conference room or coffee shop, it is amazing how easy it is to talk, without worrying about somebody eves dropping  on your conversation, your relationship takes you to a new level of trust and growth, thanks for a refreshing article on creative space.

  • Brendan McCrain

    This is good insight into an essential part of the creative (or even just productive) process. Since I work from home, I find I have to get myself out of the entire house sometimes to eliminate distractions so I take quick 5-10 minute "creative walks." The exercise is great for both body and brain in the short-term and the long-term and a brisk walk is better than any cup of coffee or energy drink. I come back to my desk feeling energetic and optimistic with a couple great ideas to try out. 

  • Barbara Rogers

    "leaving your personal space for just a few minutes can make a huge difference in generating new ideas"

    So very true! With the warmer months now upon us, nothing beats digging in the dirt for a bit in the morning in my little garden plot to off-set the sterility of sitting in front of a computer all day. Nature infuses creativity - at least it does for me I suppose making all those mud-creations as a kid meant something....