While it’s not a universal experience (and very much depends on company culture), some designers in corporate environments have restraints put on their creative expression. Those might be physical restraints, like rules against whiteboards and Post-it notes out in the open, or ideological restraints that stop the creative process in its tracks.
Maybe you work in a creative utopia, or maybe you don’t.
But creativity is delicate. It needs room to grow and a nurturing environment to bear fruit.
This topic came up during a recent Design Leadership Forum dinner in New York City, and the design leaders in attendance got into a lively discussion about how they keep their teams from feeling bogged down by too many office rules. So to continue the conversation, we’re dedicating this post to finding ways to establish safe spaces for creativity—and creatives—to thrive in corporate settings.
Physical “safe space” for design
“GlaxoSmithKline, the global pharmaceutical giant, thinks it has found the cure for the drab, inefficient office: fluid spaces where you do what the moment requires, alone or in groups, moving throughout the day. Each employee has a laptop with a built-in “soft phone,” a locker for personal possessions, and maybe one file drawer. That’s it. Even US head Deirdre Connelly doesn’t have an office.”
–Inside the New Deskless Office by Frederick E. Allen, Forbes, July 2012
New trends in office design and space usage have cut down on clutter, and often even personal space. Shared workspaces and “hot-desking,” where employees move from desk to desk as needed, might minimize the expense of square footage, but it does come with other costs.
You can’t make, or leave, “messes.”
But designers need room—and possibly rooms—to create. To put their ideas out there and see how, or if, they work together.
“Forty-eight research subjects came individually to our laboratory, again assigned to messy or tidy rooms. This time, we told subjects to imagine that a Ping-Pong ball factory needed to think of new uses for Ping-Pong balls, and to write down as many ideas as they could. We had independent judges rate the subjects’ answers for degree of creativity, which can be done reliably. Answers rated low in creativity included using Ping-Pong balls for beer pong (a party game that in fact uses Ping-Pong balls, hence the low rating on innovation). Answers rated high in creativity included using Ping-Pong balls as ice cube trays, and attaching them to chair legs to protect floors.
When we analyzed the responses, we found that the subjects in both types of rooms came up with about the same number of ideas, which meant they put about the same effort into the task. Nonetheless, the messy room subjects were more creative, as we expected. Not only were their ideas 28 percent more creative on average, but when we analyzed the ideas that judges scored as “highly creative,” we found a remarkable boost from being in the messy room — these subjects came up with almost five times the number of highly creative responses as did their tidy-room counterparts.”
“Designate a physical space that allows you and your team to make a mess.”
Independent researchers at Northwestern University have since confirmed these results with their own experiment, finding that messy-room subjects drew more creative pictures and were faster at solving brain teaser puzzles than tidy-room subjects.
Albert Einstein, Mark Twain and Steve Jobs all had very messy desks.
About office clutter; this was Einstein's desk. Just sayin'. pic.twitter.com/BheEH60HP9
— Steve Silberman (@stevesilberman) January 15, 2015
No points for guessing what my desk looks like! pic.twitter.com/Y0ZWjOoHQN
— Adil Najam عادل نجم (@AdilNajam) April 19, 2018
And one of these workhabits would be allowed here—the GlaxoSmithKline floorplan.
What can you do if your work environment is required to be a little too clean for creativity?
See if you can carve some room—or a room—out as a brainstorming space.
Dani Hart, Head of Growth at GrowthHackers, recommends designating a “research room.”
“I have worked at a startup that had a user research room, which I think worked really well. This room was almost always filled with creative brainstorming, customer journey maps, real customer interviews, and team building activities. The user research room was certainly helpful to provide a shared experience around the customer.”
Neat and tidy spaces have their uses and might be just what many teams need to do their best work. But when it’s time to brainstorm, having a place where visual disorder is okay might be crucial to surfacing real innovation.
“Go to bat for your team’s creative ideas.”
Emotional “safe space” for design
According to ASU professor Jeff Cunningham, Steve Jobs chose creatives and problem solvers to invent and design his products, and sheltered them from critics until the product was ready for the masses.
“Jobs would let the critics toughen the idea (and the team) once it passed through the creative and problem-solving doors because that made a great idea easier to fix but not to kill.
The key to driving corporate creativity is to make sure the process flows in that order with strong boundaries at each step. Don’t bring the critics in too early; they are nice people but they can be idea killers.”
That ability to try, to invent, to fail without criticism is critical to creating the kind of emotional safe space designers need to do their best work. It’s an idea I’ve heard echoed again and again from designers and design team leaders.
“If you’re a team leader, allow your team to make mistakes without judgement.”
For example, Jim Van Meer is a marketing and communications expert and adjunct professor of graphic design at George Mason University. He was also the Art Director at Geico and Senior Manager of Marketing and Creative at the American Petroleum Institute, so he has a lot of experience navigating corporate waters. He says:
“Give them the tools they need, a welcoming work environment, and the confidence they crave. Let them make mistakes without reprisal. Then defend their ideas. You’ll be amazed at the creativity you’ll unleash.”
A more extreme version of this is keynote speaker, “playshop” facilitator and life coach Vince Gowmon’s “nobody gets to be wrong” principle, designed to promote “freedom to playfully experiment and get messy.”
- Looking for the value in all contributions
- Creating more time and space to hear a variety of perspectives
- Believing in people’s innate capacity to express and be creative
- Having compassion and patience for those who don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves at first
- Being self-aware, and self-managing in moments you feel yourself about to judge or react
- Practicing communication skills aligned with the Spirit of Yes And
Even a more structured design process, like what GrowthHackers’ Dani Hart has experienced, requires an element of freedom.
“In my experience, working with designers as a marketer (leading cross-functional teams), it always starts off a little rough with different driving incentives. Designers want to create; marketers want results. Both are possible, but it can take time to meet in the middle. It’s a push & pull relationship that takes awareness and effort to develop, but I think the most helpful thing a marketer can do to help a designer is teach them 1. what the goals are for the campaigns and how their work will be measured (specific metrics) and 2. how testing can be structured within design to understand what aspects of the design lead to better performance.
In a nutshell… give the designer a goal and a system for iterating to achieve the goal, then let them figure out how to get there.”
5 creative safe space takeaways
- Designate a physical space that allows you and your team to make a mess
- Create emotional safe space by removing criticism from the early stages of your design process, but do invite in problem-solvers who can help smooth out the rough spots of your new idea
- If you’re a team leader, allow your team to make mistakes without judgement
- Go to bat for your team’s creative ideas
- You can still have structure, but balance it with creative freedom by setting goals and allowing creatives to decide how to reach them
This post was inspired by a discussion at a recent Design Leadership Forum dinner. Do you know a head of design you’d like to nominate for the Design Leadership Forum? We’d love to know about them.
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Nichole is an early-stage SaaS consultant and she also helps SaaS founders launch, engage, and build communities around their products. She is the co-founder of Purpose Beyond Product, in which she runs masterminds for the SaaS community. (Check it out, there might be one you can apply to right now!) She's also got a book: The Playbook to Grow Your SaaS With your Customers.