The Hidden Psychology of Safe Space

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Offices for Vitol. Houston, Texas. Architecture and interior design by PDR, Houston, Texas. Photography by Joe Aker.

Workplace design and building professionals have responded admirably to the Covid-19 pandemic, advancing a multitude of practical and science-backed ideas for safely re-opening offices where and when government officials allow. Unfortunately, by themselves these prescriptions could fall short in convincing large swaths of the workforce to feel comfortable with returning. The reason? The recommendations under discussion appeal almost entirely to our rational, conscious selves, and overlook the enormous influence that non-conscious human psychology plays in assessing how secure we feel in our environment.

The good news is that we can do something about it. Researchers have been plumbing the human…


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Tubakuba mountain retreat. Bergen, Norway. Espen Folgerø and students at Bergen School of Architecture. Photography by Gunnar Sørås.

As an architect who studies the psychology of creative environments, and the author of a recently published book on the subject, I’m often asked what the most common mistake creatives make in fitting out their physical workspace.

Easy, I reply. They’re looking the wrong way.

Looking the wrong way? It sounds like what happens to a North American who travels to the UK and forgets that the traffic moves in opposite directions when stepping out into the street.

No, what I’m referring to isn’t about failing to adjust for unaccustomed traffic patterns. It has to do with how we humans…


A WORD TO THE WISE

The value of developing creative ideas the old-fashioned way

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Our love affair with all things digital has brought many great inventions into the world. But in our enthusiasm for computerized products and services we could be losing sight of an extraordinarly powerful tool for teasing out the kind of creative insights that fueled the technology revolution in the first place —namely, the hand-drawn doodle, sketch, or snippet.

There are two arguments for incorporating this tool into your creative arsenal: one, research shows that ideas can flow from hand to mind as fluidly as from mind to hand, and two, visual thinking comes more naturally to us than language-based cognition.


Distant thoughts can bring out great ideas

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Fig. 1: Molo Benchwall. Product designed by Stephanie Forsythe + Todd MacAllen. Vancouver, Canada. 2003. Photography by Molo.

You could be forgiven for thinking that social distancing only recently stormed into the global lexicon in the wake of the Covid-19 health crisis. Yet the phrase was already in the air nearly two decades ago, when it was associated with one of the most influential psychological theories to have emerged in recent times. The story of its original meaning is particularly relevant to creatives today because it brings into focus several science-backed techniques for boosting idea flow through the shaping of space. …


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Study. Lilyfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Architecture by Danny Broe Architect. Interior design assisted by Toby Andrews. Photography by Karina Illovska.

How cleaning up your act could be a boon to your brain, or lead to creative block.

Organizing and decluttering is all the rage these days. For that, we can largely thank the present-day titan of tidiness, Marie Kondo, whose KonMari method has fueled several books, a Netflix series, and invigorated an entire industry devoted to helping people maintain control over their physical possessions.

But as an architect who’s written a book about scientific research into the psychology of creative space, I have long wondered whether Ms Kondo’s prescriptions for self-dispossession were beneficial to creative types, many of whom work in home environments.

So I started to look into it.

My conclusion? Assuming you’re not a pathological…


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Whiteboard wall. Photography courtesy of IdeaPaint.

There’s no place like home, Dorothy famously declares at the end of the classic 1939 film Wizard of Oz. Today, people who study and practice workplace design might be tempted to add “ — except for the office.”

For that, we can thank the growing influence of an emerging strategy known as resimercial design. A synthesis of commercial and residential elements, resimercial design is purported to bring numerous benefits to the workplace, including a boost in employee creativity and innovation. But what is the evidence for this claim? Are there particular aspects of residential design that have been shown definitively…


Living area and deck. Architecture and interior design by Mark Dziewulski Architect. Photography by Nico Marques.
Living area and deck. Architecture and interior design by Mark Dziewulski Architect. Photography by Nico Marques.
Living area and deck. Architecture and interior design by Mark Dziewulski Architect. Photography by Nico Marques.

As an architect and the author of a book about the psychology of creative space design, I have long wondered why contemporary creatives cluster so willingly in noisy coffee shops. Granted, there’s scientific research that caffeine fuels the imagination, but doesn’t the surrounding din interfere with their ability to think creatively such that no amount of chemical stimulation can compensate for the distraction?

Certainly, many eminent creatives from the past shunned clamor. Consider Marcel Proust. To remark that the French writer was sensitive to auditory interference would be an understatement. The man was positively neurotic about it. He treated the…


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It seems implausible, but your conference room table could well be bad for business. Especially if your business is driven by the desire to innovate, as many entrepreneurial ventures and creative industries are by definition.

Now, don’t confuse my admonition with the nature of meetings generally. I am not referring to the problems commonly associated with unsuccessful or unproductive meetings, such as their excessive length, frequency, or lack of focus. …


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Home office. Sweden. Interior design by Alvhem. Photography by Cim EK.

“Why is it I get my best ideas in the morning while I’m shaving?” Albert Einstein is said to have wondered. Given the setting where this particular activity is normally performed, the celebrated scientist might just as well have asked “Why is it I get my best ideas at home?”

So might a great many high-performing creatives. Eminent achievers like Charles Darwin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Picasso, Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Edith Wharton (author of a treatise on residential design), Beethoven, Ernest Hemingway, and nearly every other fiction writer putting pen to paper over the last several hundred years. …


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Photograph by Nathaniel Parker via Pixabay

Whether it’s hard-drinking writers like Capote, Kerouac, and Cheever, over-caffeinated creatives like Bach, Beethoven, and Balzac, or drug-addled rockers like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain, the figure of the intoxicated artist remains a powerful motif in the mythology of the creative class.

Now, we could debate if the taste for mind-altering substances among high-achieving creatives is a cause or effect of their chosen line of work. We could also plumb the academic research to see if a scientific basis for connecting substance intake with increased idea formation is borne out by the data. …

Donald M. Rattner, Architect

Author of MY CREATIVE SPACE: How to Design Your Home to Stimulate Ideas and Spark Innovation, 48 Science-based Techniques. Get it on Amazon amzn.to/2WfABoB

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