Smart Spaces

One of the consequences of life speeding up is that people have less and less time to think. The culture of business has also shifted to the point where instant communication and solutions are deemed more important than real insight or rigor — both of which require periods of study and reflection.

One of the consequences of life speeding up is that people have less and less time to think. The culture of business has also shifted to the point where instant communication and solutions are deemed more important than real insight or rigor — both of which require periods of study and reflection.


This lack of thinking time and the transience of so many subsequent solutions is also related to a lack of thinking spaces. Most modern offices are designed to accommodate as many people as possible at the lowest possible cost. This is considered efficient. The 18th century (sweat) factory model still dominates, and there are a host of new aural and visual distractions. But sterile open plan offices do not open minds. So are most desk jockeys flogging a dead horse?

Of course there’s always a brainstorming room with brightly colored walls, beanbags, and felt pens. But as one marketing director recently said to me, “If I have to sit in that room one more time making mission statements out of playdough, I’m going to kill myself.” Other more inventive solutions to cubicle culture include “collision areas” like cafes and staircases where employees are encouraged to exchange ideas serendipitously.

But imagine if instead of designing formal spaces to create unplanned meetings or mixing up departments you mixed up whole companies? What if, instead of putting five companies on five floors of a building, you mixed up the whole building? What would happen to thinking if someone from Orange telecom was sitting next to someone from Apple computer?

The Green House Project is a nursing home that works on a similar principle. Retirement homes are usually sterile, soul destroying places. Bill Thomas got so fed up with these temples of loneliness that he built something different — the Eden Alternative. Eden encourages residents to use their creativity and accommodates 120 residents, along with 12 cats, six dogs, 1,000 potted plants, and a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. The building also houses a kindergarten, and a disused courtyard has been turned into a playground. Children play, birds sing, and the dominant sound is of life, not death.

Historically the relationship between space and thinking was well known — but they don’t make cathedrals like that anymore. Nevertheless, some people try. The new Strata Centre at MIT by Frank Gehry is intended to stir the creative juices and inspire people to think a little differently. As Gehry himself puts it, “If you keep out the light, the mice are dwarfed.” Could the same be true with ideas? Likewise the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine at Stanford University has been built on the premise (if not the promise) that the architecture of a laboratory can influence a scientist’s level of creativity and productivity.

Other organizations that have experimented with the idea that intelligently designed spaces can influence ideas include ad agencies like Chiat/Day in LA which attracted considerable media attention in the 1990s with its innovative office. Unfortunately, the iconic design managed to alienate the very people it was intended to inspire when staff found out that personal desks and equipment had been banned and that desk space had to be reserved like a restaurant table (as Virginia Wolff said, we also need a room of our own). Nevertheless, the space was ahead of its time in some areas like the neighborhood (village) layout and the coffeehouse atmosphere it engendered. Whether the building made the ads any better is a moot point. It certainly built awareness and helped to attract talent — at least until the talent found that they had to store their files and personal belongings in their cars.


Other slightly misguided attempts to design cathedrals for the mind include an office for a media agency in London where all staff sit at a giant 66-foot communal table (no privacy), an email company which had a real lawn in the middle of the office (no water), and a company that created “snow” each morning using shredded waste paper (no point). There’s even a theory that people are more creative if they remove their shoes and socks, although I’ve yet to find a company that tests this on a daily basis.

But is the quality of work genuinely related to the nature of the space you’re sitting in? Looking at history again, the answer would appear to be no. Great artists have not generally worked in inspiring studios sipping fine champagne. They rent the cheapest space available and then struggle to pay for it. Perhaps this is the point.

Maybe the reason that so much innovation is so mediocre is because companies devote too much time and money to it and people get too comfortable — 70% of all major innovations and discoveries didn’t come out of a garage by accident (actually they did, but that’s another story).

So perhaps we’re all focusing on the wrong problem. Maybe you can’t make offices inspiring places (or design a fake “garage”), and we shouldn’t even try.

Research by the Roffey Park Management Institute in the UK says that most insights and ideas occur away from the office. They either happen in neutral locations (going for a walk, in the car or, in my own case, on airplanes) or they happen at home (in the bath, in bed, or in the garden). Interestingly, none of these places involve colored beanbags, felt pens, great architects, or teamwork. They’re just places were individuals are “dreaming and drifting” and thinking about something else other than work.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to make offices more interesting. Maybe the solution is to let individuals design their own spaces in the sense that they’re allowed to personalize their immediate surroundings. Given the rarity of privacy and quietness these days maybe we should try to bring back the idea of personal offices and not look too discouragingly at people who spend hours looking out of the window.


Back in the 1990s Asda, a UK supermarket now owed by Wal-Mart, gave people signs to hang on their doors (offices had doors back then) that said “Quiet please. I’m having an idea.” Perhaps in the future people will be given thinking breaks to take their brain for a walk. Or how about reinventing tea breaks or the afternoon siesta? Trends often signify unmet needs, so it’s interesting that while only 20% of US companies allow staff to sleep at work, one wide-awake company called Metro Naps in New York is offering stressed-out executives a midday rest facility at their sleep station at $14 for 20 minutes.

What can you do to your space to increase the quality of ideas? Here are five ideas:

  • Sit next to someone you don’t know and tell them what you’re working on.
  • Instead of taking work home, take bits of your home to work. Personalize your space.
  • If ideas elude you, don’t just sit there. Stop and do something totally different.
  • If your office doesn’t feed your mind find a favourite place that does.
  • Constantly refresh your space. Bring in outsiders like artists to change it.