Creativity-Inspiring Environments

By Dr. Jeff King, Executive Director, Center for Excellence in Transformative Teaching and Learning, University of Central Oklahoma

An interesting article about creativity as prompted by the built environment appeared recently in The New York Times as part of its August 7, 2016, Education Life supplement.

The article’s author, Alexandra Lange, who also authored Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities, says there’s research to show that the interactions and conversations resulting from humans in proximity can spur creativity. Buildings and environments that seek to put humans into such arrangements would seem, then, to be good ideas in service to innovation and creative output. Though Lange indicates there’s little research yet to identify the best architectural designs for sparking creativity, she does say there are common features in buildings that have been intentionally designed to inspire creativity.

Cornell Tech, the University of Utah, York University, Northwestern University, Stanford, the University of Iowa, and Wichita State University are featured for their creativity-friendly building designs. Some common features include spacious, naturally lighted areas to encourage lingering and reflecting; an absence of walls in favor of collective engagement areas; informal lounge areas; and social spaces for learning.

The pictures of these spaces and the description of how institutions are using them in service to creativity-sparking educative activities are inspiring.

Also inspiring, though, are findings as reported in an article by researchers from the Universities of Kansas and Utah about the effect of natural environments on creativity and problem-solving:

. . . we show that four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases performance on a creativity, problem-solving task by a full 50% in a group of naive hikers. Our results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting. (Atchley, Strayer, & Atchley, 2012)

There is much research supporting the restorative and creativity-friendly impact of time spent in nature. Another example:

. . . the more connected people are with nature, the greater their preference for innovative and holistic thinking styles. Moreover, Study 2 showed that these effects held even when controlling for general affect and well-being. (Leong, Fischer, & McClure, 2014).

Soaring ceilings, wide walkways and staircases, open spaces inside for collective thinking and tinkering — all of these can be excellent approaches to stimulate creativity in the built environment.

But maybe an even more powerful effect can be had by communing with nature:

I have a room all to myself; it is nature. — Henry David Thoreau, Journal, January 3, 1853


Atchley, R. A., Strayer, D. L., & Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS One, 7(12). Available:

Lange, A. (2016, August 4). The innovation campus: Building better ideas. The New York Times. Available:

Leong, L. Y. C., Fischer, R., & McClure, J. (2014). Are nature lovers more innovative? The relationship between connectedness with nature and cognitive styles. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 40, 57-63. Available:

Thoreau, H. D. (1853, January 3). Journal. Available:

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