“More time and creativity has gone into designing natural habitats for zoo animals than in creating comfortable office spaces for humans.”

By Judith Heerwagen, Ph.D.

Smart Space: Thinking Outside the Cube

Organizations demand high quality thinking and creative solutions, and yet they house the workforce in bland and boring seas of beige cubicles that don’t offend…nor do they inspire. Is this the kind of environment that produces the mind’s best work? Probably not.

What would a space look and feel like if it were truly designed to help us do our mind’s best work? To make us feel psychologically, socially, and physically comfortable? Such environments would be congenial. They would fit our needs and our senses. They would be compatible with our work.

The first principle of congeniality is to rid the environment of irritants. Even a cursory review of the research literature on the office environment would show that our workplaces are rife with irritants and annoyances, including:

Distractions –
Most of our work environments are filled with distractions from people talking around us and from constant interruptions. Distractions interrupt our internal flow of thought, a process that is critical to high-level cognitive work.

Discomforts –
Literally hundreds of research studies in the past decade have shown that our work environments suffer from being too hot or too cold, having poor air quality, or glare on our computer screens. Discomforts make us irritable and often generate coping efforts that usually don’t work (such as running our hands under the hot water because the office is so cold).

Lack of control –
For most of us, about the only thing we can control at work is turning our computer on and off. Since the majority of Americans work in cubicles, they also cannot close the door to avoid distractions or interruptions. We also have no control over lighting, temperature conditions, or ventilation. Lack of control can produce withdrawal, negative moods, and illness symptoms such as headaches.

Stress –
Stress in generated by all of the above. It also results from lack of privacy, excessive work demands, conflicts with coworkers or managers, or difficulties combining family and work pressures. High levels of stress are particularly deadly to creativity and high quality cognitive work because it leads to restricted thinking (tunnel vision). Although a little bit of stress is often considered an energy boost that aids thinking, too much stress has the opposite effect. It is agitating and illness producing.
So much for distractions.

Now that we have gotten rid of these problems, do we have a congenial space? The answer is clearly, “No.” We need to know what to add to the environment to make it work for us. Getting rid of distractions and problems is a necessary, but insufficient, step in producing a congenial office environment. For hints on congeniality, we need to turn to research in cognitive neuroscience, environmental psychology, and social psychology.

Congenial Space– Four Key Ideas:

1. Keep it healthy.
Work depends on feeling healthy. You’re not going to be in top shape if the building and environment you work in bombards you with problems – such as poor air quality, uncomfortable temperatures, lack of daylight and connections to the outdoors. Research in the US and many European countries is showing that attention to the healthiness of buildings pays off in the long run with healthier, more productive and more motivated occupants who look forward to coming to work. Emerging research also shows that sustainable building strategies can also be good for the organization – enhancing public image, increasing efficiencies throughout the organization, and potentially reducing costs of insurance. (1)

2. Take advantage of primitive preferences.
Environmental psychologists are finding that beauty is not always in the eye of the beholder. That is, there seem to be strong universal patterns to what we like and don’t like in the environment. As with the work in distributed intelligence, these patterns seem to have evolved from primitive preferences that kept our ancestors safe and healthy in their natural environments.

The term “biophilia”(2) is often used to describe these preferences because they relate to the natural environment and our intrinsic attraction to natural beauty. The features of these primitive preferences include: distant views, a sense of enclosure or refuge, green and flowering vegetation, water, moderate levels of complexity, spatial variability, and pathways that suggest safe movement between places.(3)

We also prefer forms and shapes derived from nature, rather than sharp, geometric shapes often associated with abstract art. A growing body of research shows that inclusion of these features indoors, or through window views to the outdoor environment, is associated with positive moods, reduced stress, and a more positive quality of life.

For instance, Roger Ulrich of Texas A&M has found that passive viewing of everyday nature scenes, even through a window, reduces psychophysiological stress and promotes positive moods.(4) This finding is important for creativity, because research by Alice Isen at Cornell University shows that positive moods aid creative problem solving.

3. Design for distributed intelligence.
Cognitive scientists have begun to identify close links between our minds and our environments. Although psychologists have known for years that we remember more if we are tested in the same room in which we learn than in a different room, researchers are beginning to identify why this is so.
They are discovering that our memories and quality of our thinking are bound in complex ways to the features and attributes of the physical environment. We can think of ourselves, our tools, our colleagues, our toys, our stories, our post-it notes, and our piles of files as a distributed cognitive system that helps us remember and organize our thoughts. It is as important to work as our computer – but it is much more ancient.

Psychologists such as Donald Norman (5) and Daniel Dennett (6) argue that this division of labor between our minds and the environment evolved to help our ancestors save mental energy for novel problems and emerging events. External memory aids are especially important for reflective thinking that requires us to store ideas, thoughts, and facts while we are working on them in our mind, combining them with other thoughts and ideas. Backwards and forwards our minds go in this process. An ancient system at work in a high tech world.

4. Remember that all work is social.
Work is about people and human relationships. In fact, having a best friend at work is one of the key characteristics of happy, successful, engaged employees.(7) People are also an important component of the cognitive system. Creativity, thinking and innovation are social processes. Sure, we work alone quite a bit of the time on our own tasks. But when we need to test our ideas, learn new things, come up with new product ideas and develop better ways of serving customers, we get together to talk and debate.

Innovation arises from these social interactions in which concepts are shared and merged with others to create a collective understanding and a shared vision. These social encounters need to be of many different kinds – spontaneous talks in the corridor or in someone’s office, interactions over coffee or lunch, and team work in dedicated “war rooms.”

Creativity and innovation are often noisy, messy, intense processes that are not confined to one space. Thinking outside of the cube means getting outside the cube. Moving around, changing scenery, passively absorbing the environment is a way to break our mental logjams. Creativity also requires time alone for synthesizing what you have learned. Thus, there need to be regular opportunities for privacy and quiet, as well as social stimulation.

Finding the right balance between solitude and interaction is a key problem in today’s work environments. Too little interaction leads to isolation and stagnation. Too much leads to distractions and stress. Somewhere in between is the “happiness zone” where challenge, creativity, and innovation are most likely to occur. Understanding how this zone shifts for tasks, individuals, and the deep structure of work is a major challenge for designers.
Invest in “convivial tools”.

The term was coined by Michael Schrage (8) and refers to devices, electronic or real, that aid collective thinking and development of shared mental models. These may be large expanses of white boards that allow team members to readily visualize concepts, ideas, relationships that can be added to and transformed as others play with the ideas. Convivial tools can also be sophisticated computer visualization or brainstorming software.They also include “post its” and other ways to keep ideas in front of us. Donald Norman calls these kinds of tools “things that make us smart.” The key thing about convivial tools is that they are designed to fit natural ways of thinking, interacting, and perceiving.

To summarize…
Like convivial tools, congenial environments are based in natural design principles. That is, they fit our ways of thinking, working, and interacting rather than making us struggle, squirm, and fit into their requirements. Congenial environments take advantage of our mental, social and emotional make up. Oh…and a little humor doesn’t hurt. Things that make us laugh – quirky artifacts, an element of surprise here and there – are as good for the brain as they are for the soul.


(1) J. Heerwagen, 2000. Green Buildings: A Strategic Perspective. Forthcoming in the International Journal of Research, Development, Demonstration, and Innovation. 28(5).

(2) Stephen R. Kellert and Edwin O. Wilson, 1993. The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, DC: Island Press.

(3) Gordon Orians and Judith Heerwagen, 1992. Evolved responses to landscapes. In The Adapted Mind, J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, and J. Tooby (Eds.) Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press

(4) Roger Ulrich, 1993. Biophilia and biophobia. In the Biophilia Hypothesis, ob cit.

(5) Donald Norman, 1993. Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley

(6) Daniel Dennett, 1996. Kinds of Minds. New York: Basic Books.

(7) Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, 1999. First Break all the Rules. New York: Simon & Schuster

(8) Michael Schrage, 1995. No More Teams. New York: Doubleday.

About the author

Judith Heerwagen, Ph.D. an environmental psychologist, based in Seattle, Washington, has made a study of US office workers and their environment.  Dr Heerwagen offers advice on creating congenial work environments that reduce stress, enhance creativity and sustain high levels of productivity:

© Copyright 2004, Judith Heerwagen Ph.D. Printed by permission.