Each day, we go to work, sit–or possibly stand–at our desk and do what we’re paid to do. Our desk is just a desk that happens to be in an office, which is a larger collection of desks, right? Wrong. The “where” of your work greatly affects the “how” of your work. Or rather, the “how well.” Which is why there’s been so much attention paid to the humble desk lately.
Countless articles (many of them right here on Fast Company) have been devoted to the topic: changing your desk can change the way you work; standing desks can foster good health (though we’ll pass on those goofy looking treadmill or cycling desks); a plant on your desk can help you feel more satisfied; workplace ergonomics shape your behavior; the right desk can even extend your life!
With this in mind, we decided to look at how creative professionals, in particular, define, manipulate, and draw energy from their workspaces to yield the best results. It’s true that each person’s relationship to her work and workspace is personal–the messy and the orderly will never see eye to eye–but after soliciting perspectives from a variety of creators, a number of common themes surfaced. Here are six things you can focus on right now to ensure that even something as mundane as your slab of wood/wood-inspired product on stilts contributes to your creativity.
A good night’s sleep, your morning cup of joe, actually liking the work you do–these little factors can all affect your mood in positive or negative ways. And there’s little debate that when your job is to create, your mood affects your work. But have you considered that the physical surface you’re working on can have just as much of an impact on your overall sense of ease and productivity? It likely does.
Scott Bell, creative director at agency Droga5 says that his space at the agency–which includes a standing desk, family photos, and resembles something of a “miniature Moose Lodge”–affects everything “from how I feel heading into work in the morning to how I handle little tasks throughout the day.”
For others, like Geoffrey Roche, legendary Canadian ad man who, along with his son Alexandre, recently co-founded social networking sites Dogbook and Catbook and fashion app WearToday.com, the right workspace leads to a more focused state of mind. “If I’m not comfortable in my surroundings, I can’t focus. I tend to get distracted by a lack of organization and then my productivity and creativity goes to hell. I’m ADD times 11 so it really is key to have things in their rightful place,” he says, noting that his home office in his poolhouse includes books, lots of natural light and the same Klaus Nienkamper blotter and pencil tray that he’s had for over 20 years. “Every day I neaten my desk for the next day so I’m able to start with a clear head.”
Brian Kehrer, who works as game designer and creative technologist at Psyop in an open-concept, naturally lit, wood-floored walkup in the Lower East Side, contends a sub-par workspace has greater potential consequences than distraction. “Mood is easily and subtly affected by external forces. That’s why I hate cheap things: they silently degrade your attitude, which is dangerous, because you might be tossing out ideas because your desk is wobbly, or the lights are flickering,” he says. “Workspace and mode are actually the most important considerations because the changes in personality are difficult to analyze, and they affect decision making, which should be terrifying because you can not logically weigh the impact a cheap desk has on your evaluation of concepts, or risk assessments.”
Even the perfect desk can fall short. Cafés are a popular destination for many as an alternative, as is occasionally working from home, but taking the notion of a flexible work environment to new levels can be truly inspiring.
As Latin American Marketing Director at Mondelez, and the brains behind the company’s collaborative incubator , Buenos Aires-based Maria Mujica says in recent years she’s radically changed how she works and has seen tremendous results. “I don’t have a desk anymore. I have moved to nomad desking. I can’t tolerate the idea of having a fixed go-to place. I feel it limits and un-inspires me,” she says. “Not having an office and a desk has helped me un-structure and I have gained an ability to feel comfortable and focused anywhere.”
Energized by new workspaces, Alexandre Roche says he strives for a balance between the inspiration found being around other people and the need to be alone when it comes time to produce. For the moment, he switches from cafés and his artfully minimalist office space when need be, but he envisions a more innovative approach to workplace flexibility.
“I’d love to design an office where no one has a specific desk. Each person gets their own cubby or locker where they can put their things, but beyond that it’s first come first served,” he says. “There would be many different zones–quiet workspace areas, more collaborative spaces with big tables, standing desks, sitting desks, desks with a view, desks against a wall, couches, coffee shop tables, counters–lots of variety so that you can choose the workspace that’s best for that day. It would also encourage unlikely collaboration, since you’d always be sitting with a different group of people at the company. Most creative companies today have open-spaces, but they’re still very similar to old days of private-offices and closed doors. Even though it’s open, you’re still always sitting in the same place at the same desk. To really change the way people work, you need to be more radical.”
While having flexibility is important for different stages of work, boundaries are also valuable. For the office bound, something as simple as defined whiteboard for brainstorming or a favored chair for thinking will help delineate creative tasks in their mind. For the work-from-homers, however, creating boundaries is essential.
“I work at home in my living room, so I’m never fully in work mode,” says Nick Douglas, editor of comedic website Slackstory and creator of epic supercuts. His desk is too big for his apartment, he says, but a full-length mirror next to it helps alleviate claustrophobia. “If I could, I’d have hella monitors. When you edit video, there’s no such thing as too many monitors. But a living room office can only look so much like an office. Also, I’d like a standing desk, but it would throw the living room off, and the convertible ones are stupid pricey.”
Since his space can’t completely be calibrated as an office, Douglas finds ways to dedicate certain aspects of it to his work. His computer is customized to the point that on one else wants to use it and he always ensures that there’s at least one clear area of his desk. “Currently, I have the minimum bare space to not feel stressed. The rest is covered with a skinny iMac that I turn sideways when I want to watch TV on the couch. My computer is my TV and for the past few years that’s been far more convenient than having an actual TV.”
There are those who hate co-workers’ family photos and then there are others who take the greatest care to curate their own personal wall of self. Either way, obsessing over the small details that make a workspace unique can be a good idea–while it seems the most frivolous, everyone consulted for this piece was quite passionate about the details.
PJ Pereira, chief creative officer of agency Pereira & O’Dell, says his company’s office, in which everyone works at communal tables, is explicitly designed for max creative stimulation. “We designed the office to be a mix of old and new. So everyone feels inspired to play with these two things. I don’t like the obsession for the new or the vintage. Mixing them is where creativity lives. Things around you influence the culture of the place and your mindset.” he says. Creativity is further sparked by art. “We have new paintings that get changed every six months to refresh the office, all from SFMOMA’s artist studio. It’s pretty awesome when you arrive one day and all the paintings are new. Feels like you moved to a whole new space.” In the agency’s São Paulo office, a vertical garden defines the vibe. “It makes the day feel lighter.”
Alexandre Roche also takes pleasure in botanical accents. “Flowers keep things happy. They remind me that there’s a world out there, that maybe I should leave the office and get out a little. They also help me keep track of the passing days–flowers don’t last forever.”
When it comes to personal artifacts, Bell says that having little items from his personal life make his workspace seem less generic. “A little personalization goes a long way in making everything feel less temporary. You should feel weird sitting at my spot,” he says. “I love having a place to put all the stuff my wife would never let me put up in our apartment. My giant flag that says ‘America–Love it or leave it’ doesn’t really have a place at home, but here at an incredibly international agency, where I’m one of the most American guys, it just works. At the end of the day the most important thing about my workspace is my collection of family photos on the wall. That, and the picture of a mountain lion eating a deer carcass that somebody stuck on my wall because it reminded them of me.”
Even Mujica, who’s committed to her itinerant work style requires certain niceties: “As adaptable as I might sound, there are some non-negotiable conditions for a great workspace–good cappuccino, plugs, great Wi-Fi, and ideally good floors like wood or wool carpets. I’m not so flexible!”
Solving really big problems sometimes require drastic measures. While hammering an idea out of your head can occasionally seem tempting, there’s consensus that stepping away from the desk is the way to break loose mental logjams.
Bell and Alexandre Roche both prefer cafés for their built-in restraints. Roche finds coffee joints without handy power outlets, forcing himself to race against his computer’s battery life, while Bell seeks out Wi-Fi-free zones to concentrate without online distractions. “If that’s not working I like to find a small room with white walls and as few distractions as possible,” says Bell. “Once I feel like I have something I like to head back to the office and talk it out with people. It could be anybody really. The process of pitching the idea to people, whether they’re in the kitchen or standing in a hallway, helps refine the thinking.”
Bouncing ideas off friends works well for Douglas. “I sometimes do ‘study halls’ with other work-at-home friends, just so we both stay more focused. Or I take creative problems to friends and colleagues over IM. It’s a terrible system for them, because I can bug them at any time. I work with freelancers in a dozen cities, so we have a vague spread-out virtual office,” he says. Having a loose schedule also helps, he says: “I pepper my day with errands. I think that accidentally gives me time to subconsciously figure out the tough problems.”
For his best work, Pereira says he heads outside to a shady spot in his garden, while Kehrer, says he walks around a lot. “If I could, I’d hold meetings while walking around the city.” Being mobile keeps meetings small and fosters more creativity, he says. “I even co-designed two games on the steps of the post office at 34th street in midtown, since our office at the time was a depressing gray box.” But when the going gets really tough, Kehrer says he gets physical. “When I’m working on tough problems, I exercise and follow it up with a really hot shower.”
Geoffrey Roche employs a similar tactic. “A lot of the time I’ll leave my office and go somewhere else, meet someone inspiring for lunch, play tennis, have a shower, have another shower–anything to kind of get my mind off the problem directly. All of my best ideas have been ones that have fallen out of the sky. I’ve been able to free up my head enough to really consider it from a lot of places (literally) and that isn’t always the office.”
Of course, if coffee, fresh air, and exercise fail to produce a genius solution to a creative conundrum, there’s always the bar.
“Where is the place that most of the big problems, the big stuff happens? Bars!” That’s Mujica’s solution to creative block. She says that’s where her best edge appears. “I’m clear about this and lately I have distilled why: I’m highly stimulated by the ambiance. Contrary to other people I can concentrate very intensely in places with noise. I love to be surrounded by people, but at the same time alone it seems to trigger more connections in my mind. I love to have team meetings in bars. I think that changing body location, moving out of the office to an external place helps open perspectives. It is refreshing. Context influences and many problems that seem complicated in a work office setup tend not to be so when observed from a bar. And I find that the power of ideas in napkins is definitely not a cliché! I have a few, which I keep as mementos of conversations I knew were going to be the seeds of great projects.”
Share your own tips and tweaks for a creativity-boosting workspace in the comments below.