Brain Space

Can the right work environment make you more creative? Nicola Robey sure thinks so…

By: Nicola Robey,   6 minutes

It started at the age of five, with a small, green, plastic tray that would bang noisily against my grazed knees. Sliding solidly into place underneath a tiny school desk, this tray housed everything I’d need to help get me through those first five tricky years of school life.  

Outside, the playground was flowing with chaos, tears, scraps, and more grazed knees, but inside, in this drawer, order and familiarity reigned. Exercise books stacked neatly on top of one another, novelty pencil case kitted out with rainbow pens, and various plastic paraphernalia gathered from Woolworth’s most garish aisle. While some fellow students let theirs’ descend into an overflowing mass of crumpled paper and Penguin bar wrappers, pride in this tiny pocket of the universe always made sure mine was neat as a pin.

Room to think

This was a small snotbag’s first step into realising that space could affect the way I approached work, learning and even school itself. From the sharpness of my pencils, to those precious stickers earned throughout the year, having a space to master gave me a grounded platform for my thoughts to multiply, challenge, and evolve.

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so you may be violent and original in your work.” – Flaubert

But, does surrounding yourself with order always enable the brain to flourish? Well, my five-year old self and French philosopher Flaubert certainly thought so. Famed for penning the advice, ‘Be regular and orderly in your life, so you may be violent and original in your work,’  Flaubert was a great advocate for keeping both mind and workspace ship shape. But this sentiment flies in the face of other great thinkers’ approaches. In fact, some of the most seismic brains have held a deep aversion to visits from Mr Sheen. Notorious clutter bug, Einstein favoured his desk heaving under the weight of thoughts and theories, piles of paper strewn with equations and lots of dust. And he didn’t give a hoot. In fact, responding to critics of his unkempt office, Einstein cattily replied, ‘If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?’

Similarly, the cavernous imagination of Roald Dahl was daily put to use in a filthy hut at the bottom of his garden – a far cry from the slick writerly dens that illicit envy on Instagram feeds. ‘It may not be pretty, it may not be tidy’, he confessed, ‘and it certainly hasn’t been cleaned for at least five years. Two years ago a goat got in, and there were droppings on the floor. I did clean those up.’

The secret script

While the geniuses may not be able to agree, it remains clear that the spaces around us, play a huge role in our emotional and intellectual wellbeing. Imagine if you will, stepping into a packed lift, heaving with the scents and sounds of other bodies. Now imagine entering an empty lift, one piping the calming sounds of Enya into your ears. It might seem obvious, but unless you have an aversion to lifts and whale music, you’re likely to feel less anxious and stressed in the latter. Environmental psychologist Lily Bernheimer suggests this is because, ‘Space is like a secret script directing our actions’, she explains, ‘it impacts feelings, behaviour, identities and how quickly we can solve puzzles.’

Currently solving the puzzle of his next novel, League of Strangers friend and Man Booker-nominated author Wyl Menmuir knows just how much credence the right space has in helping him tackle the blank page. “The professional part of me knows that I should be able to write anywhere, since all I really need is a flat surface, a notebook and a pen,” he explains, “Having said that, I love a well-designed writing space.”

Admitting it could have been an act of procrastination, Wyl recently designed and built his own desk from scratch, “I’d run out of words, so the idea of doing something with my hands instead of my head appealed. I spent weeks planing and sanding planks of alder. It was like a meditation I could sink into until I was ready to write again. When I was writing my first novel a friend sent me a quote from Neil Gaiman, which was ‘Finish what you start’. I’ve now got the words carved into the surface of my desk so I see it every time I sit down to write.

The story of space

Since the early 1970s, the links between space and our emotional status have been mapped by the emerging field of science known as environmental psychology. Through myriad studies, scientists have discovered that physical surroundings have a very real impact on how individuals think, feel, and act. And as such, have come to agree that when a specific set of variables align, the space we inhabit can boost both brain power, productivity and creativity. Findings that have had a very real influence on how architects and designers have since approached their work.

It’s a workplace evolution that’s easy to track.

This almighty shift has all but ended the reign of the office cubicle, a symbol of corporate drudgery that proliferated the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. The mindful evolution towards more intuitive office design, means that the days when Google’s Headquarters were the only places to generate office-jealousy are behind us. Today architects and designers across the world are raising the bar, by heralding a new approach to space, using physical environments to trigger creativity, bolster community and generate more productivity between their often ‘living’ walls.

Take for example state-of-the-art ‘biophilic’ buildings that are sprouting around the world. Biophilia loosely means ‘borrowing from nature’ and applications of its use in architecture can be seen in Apple’s tree-filled UFO-ish campus in California, and the Selgas Cano Architecture building in Madrid, a long one-storey building settled right on the forest floor with a clear glass wall running its entire length, making employees feel like they’re at one with nature, just without the risk of getting their Mac screens wet.

But Apple and Google budgets aside, how do we apply these findings to our own spaces so we can meet our full creative and productive potential?

Lily Bernheimer explains all in her 2017 book, The Shape of Us: How Everyday Spaces Structure our Lives, Behaviour and Wellbein. “Through years of working in offices, I’ve developed a checklist that brings the best of this research together.” And it’s all housed in one handy acronym:


B Biophilia: natural elements, materials, views and patterns

A Atmosphere: light quality, air quality, temperature, and smell

L Layout: space utilisation and allocation, way finding and circulation

A Amenities: supporting good nutrition, fitness, ergonomics and rest

N Noise: avoiding disturbing noise levels, friction points, and design flaws

C Cohesion: community, communication, and control

E Energy: reducing use of energy, resources, and waste

D Design: colour, shape, material, proportions, detail, and style


So, in a co-working space this means no Michael Bolton tracks and definitely no fish chowder for lunch, ever.


Making it personal

Introvert, extrovert, the super-organised, the chaotic hoarders, the easily distracted, and the heads down power horses. While the BALANCED list is a handy tool, Bernheimer is quick to remind us that space is still a very personal issue – and a trip to a garden centre, probably won’t turn you into Steve Jobs overnight. “With the latest craze for Google-style Astro-turf and ball pits, we’re still failing to ask what would work best for the people and purpose of specific space,” she explains.

Bearing personal needs in mind, interior designer Helena Star recently took a versatile approach to the redesign of Stranger Collective’s League of Strangers studio space. “In the new office there are specific zones for different working practices and activities, which means better use of the space, people’s time and a more productive environment,” she says. “This is a space designed for people who like people. It’s fun and fresh, and works well for those that like to collaborate.”

And beyond that, it looks darn good too. Helena continues by explaining the concept for the space began by using a quote by Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, ‘The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamouring to become visible.’ “The idea was to create a calm neutral environment giving people space to think, and bring their own colour and creativity to,” she says. “There’s real potential in this blank page.”

It’s who I am

Helping to tackle his own blank page, Wyl Menmuir is also championing a new approach, by eliminating the distractions that plague his process. He now keeps two workspaces; a digital desk and an analogue desk. “The more difficult the task, the more I feel the pull to check my social feeds,” Wyl confesses. “I hate the idea that my attention is being pulled away from the more difficult job at hand, so the idea of the analogue desk is to have a space with no tech for when I really need to concentrate. The computer has its own desk at one side of the room and my ‘proper’ desk is purely for notebooks and longhand writing.”

It’s a simple yet clever solution, and one that’s grown from years of understanding his own optimum working conditions. And perhaps that’s where the answer lies. Knowing yourself. Once you’ve understood your own behaviour at work, then it’s far easier to manipulate your environment around you to help guide you to a more productive and creative place.

And if that’s anything like Dahl, which meant daily stepping into an old, unwashed sleeping bag zipped up to his arm pits, then so be it.

Just maybe leave the goats at home.



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