The Hidden Psychology of Safe Space

Image for post
Image for post
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 mind for decades to understand why we react to our physical surroundings as we do. Their findings reveal that certain aspects of built space that appear to have no logical connection to material safety nonetheless can profoundly affect how dangerous we perceive an environment to be. We are generally unaware of the effect these elements have on our mental state because they exert their influence from deep within the human psyche, where they endure as a legacy of our evolutionary past. Rather than dismiss these unseen agents as irrational or irrelevant to modern life, however, we should capitalize on our newfound insights to develop techniques for shaping space that people will intuit as well as know to be safe. …


Image for post
Image for post
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 have been genetically encoded to orient themselves to our environment, and how we remain guided by that coding even though the conditions that prompted this bit of bioengineering have long disappeared. …


A WORD TO THE WISE

The value of developing creative ideas the old-fashioned way

Image for post
Image for post

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.

The nice thing is, you don’t have to be Leonardo da Vinci to wield a pencil or its modern equivalent to positive effect. In fact, the person who invented one of the most popular products on earth had no formal training in drawing, yet was able to harness pencil and paper to propel his invention from concept to market. …


Distant thoughts can bring out great ideas

Image for post
Image for post
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. …


Image for post
Image for post
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 hoarder, it depends. …


Image for post
Image for post
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 to enhance idea flow? Determining the answers to these questions is imperative if advocates are to argue for a resimercial approach on an informed rather than intuitive basis. …


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 bedroom in his Paris apartment where he wrote like a sensory deprivation chamber — shutters closed, drapes drawn, the walls lined with sound-absorbing cork. It wasn’t enough. …


Image for post
Image for post

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. …


Image for post
Image for post
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. …


Image for post
Image for post
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. …

About

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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store