How to Use Your Space to Change Behavior

In my role as Creative Director of the Stanford, I’ve thought about and built many creative spaces along with the co-author of Make Space, Scott Witthoft. At the we teach a human-centered and experimental design process for approaching problems. Our students include people from a wide variety of backgrounds: educators, executives, business students, architects, and kids alike.

Recently I gave a talk at Designer Fund’s Bridge program about “creative space.” I don’t mean a super-clean, precious space filled with precious high-end furniture. For us, a creative space is one that nudges the people who work and inhabit it to change the way they approach their work and collaborations. Two beliefs are embedded in that idea. 1) That everyone—not just designers or so-called “creatives”—can approach their work with more creativity. And 2) that context creates content. In other words, different environments can foster different ways of thinking and different behaviors.

Venues, like this concert hall, provide guidance for how to act and feel in that space

Context is a very powerful lever because people typically don’t recognize its influence. We focus on the job at hand and our next deliverable so much that we don’t notice how something as simple as whether we sit on a couch or perch on a stool affects the diversity and quantity of ideas we generate.

For example, imagine how the dynamic of a classroom changes once you move away from neat rows of desks that face a podium. To get students to visualize their ideas, we take away the chairs, so they gravitate toward standing whiteboards. If we want students to connect or have a discussion, we set up chairs in a circle. We arrange cocktail tables for small groups to break out and gather around. All these seemingly minor changes have a profound impact on the ways in which people interact.

The default classroom setup at the Stanford

As a forcing function to ensure that professors create different spatial setups to compliment their learning goals, we created a default classroom setup of the space with four couches in the middle of our large studio spaces—an arrangement that’s impossible for teaching a class. This unlikely default configuration forces our instructors to arrange the space each day and presents the space as a tool to support each day’s learning agenda.

Making your own space more creative begins with intent––by articulating the actions and attitudes you want to achieve in the space.

Tweaking the space need not be complex, just thoughtful. Famous mid-century furniture designer and architect Charles Eames describes the role of the designer as akin to being a good host. Develop an awareness of what’s happening—the heat in a room, the noise or lack thereof, the proximity of people. Make minor manipulations of the space to match your intent. It can be as simple as providing a chair for someone who appears uncomfortable or inviting a group to stand by omitting the chairs altogether.

One click down is to pick a particular variable to play with. If you want to manipulate space, start with human-scale detail––which we call properties. We like to look at posture, orientation, surface, ambiance, density, storage. These 6 variables can be manipulated to nudge people just a touch toward particular behaviors.

For instance, we’ve found that physical posture influences mental attitudes and mindsets. As mentioned, simply getting folks to stand up can raise the energy level of your discussion by a shocking degree. Play with posture by varying the seating options.

Each variation can carry with it multiple messages. Couches, for example signal that you are in a casual place. They also, however, put you in a very reclined posture that we see can lend itself to a “critique mode” where people tend to develop an attitude of an observer or someone watching a movie—the opposite of an engaged, active participant. We find that as people relax and get comfortable on a couch, they become more negative about what’s possible and adverse to action. Simply put, they don’t want to get off the couch.

The Stanford space is specifically designed to encourage a bias towards action

In light of that insight, our most common seating are steel lab stools that are completely uncomfortable. No one wants to sit on them for long, and so they literally encourage you to get up and do something: build a prototype, run an experiment, try out an idea. That bias toward action encourages creativity. At a glance making someone uncomfortable seems unintuitive and antithetical to “being a good host” but when matched with the intent of getting people to actively mingle, it is right on.

These tiny tweaks from discomfort to comfort, from relaxed to upright posture, can have incredible impact. The change that allows a space to encourage creativity can be as simple as turning the seats to face a different direction or moving different people to sit next to each other.

Solutions can be of multiple scales. Sometimes of course, changing the creative vibe of a space requires tearing a wall down, or building a new building from scratch. But that is not always the case by any stretch. In other words, don’t be afraid to do the obvious thing. Simple changes can disrupt your space and can be critical to altering the feeling of a space and the behavior of the people who work within it. For more actionable ways to use space to nudge behavior, check out Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration.

Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, co-authors of Make Space, at the Stanford