Classroom Design for Creativity – A Lesson from Google

Lego’s office space

Ever since I started working here at CKS and began writing about design, innovation, creativity and so on, I’ve often read and written about the physical design of spaces and how they influence creativity. You can find many an article (this, this and this, for example) examining the work spaces of some of the most innovative companies today – Facebook, Google and Apple are obvious examples – and how their non-traditional office design feeds their innovativeness.

Fireman poles, slides, beanbags, informal spaces for brainstorming sessions, walls that invite scribbling and note-making, bright, colorful and unstructured open spaces, games and garden spaces are all elements used in these offices, and it’s been shown that they contribute to the creative output of the employees as well. These informal and playful elements put people at ease and make them more likely to allow ideas to flow without fear of rejection or failure. More and more offices, recognizing the value of botton-up creativity, are slowly but surely beginning to introduce some of these elements into their spaces.

So what does this have to do with classrooms? A new study finds that the design of a classroom impacts learning in a similar way, as Fast Company reports:

The paper, published in the journal Building and the Environment, found that classroom design could be attributed to a 25% impact, positive or negative, on a student’s progress over the course of an academic year. The difference between the best- and worst-designed classrooms covered in the study? A full year’s worth of academic progress.

So what did they find? Six of the design parameters–color, choice, complexity, flexibility, connection, and light–had a significant effect on learning. Light, as mentioned above, concerns the amount of natural light in the classroom and the quality of the electrical lights it contains. Choice has to do with the quality of the furniture in the classroom, as well as providing “interesting” and ergonomic tables and chairs for pupils. Complexity and color both have to do with providing an ample amount of visual stimulation for students in the classroom.

I also came across this interview with Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, co-directors of the Environments Collaborative at the Stanford University d.school and authors of Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration. In it, the authors talk about various aspects of architecture, ergonomics, and their impact on creativity and innovation, using specific examples that they have experimented with. For example, posture:

… if you start to look at posture, different postures seem to encourage different behaviors. So if you’re looking at people who have a reclined posture, we’ve watched that a lot in our students. And we have experimented with a lot of different ways of sitting on the floor, sitting in a couch with a laid-back posture, sitting upright in a stool, and even we’ve created spaces where we don’t allow them to sit. They have to stand and move around the room all the time.

Also, some successful creative spaces used at the d.school are easily changeable, are ambiguous or set up in an impromptu way:

One thing that’s been really successful with the– we call them huddle rooms at the d.school, where teams can huddle together and get work done in an impromptu fashion. The furnishings in those rooms are deliberately ambiguous. Right now, we have some furniture in there that most closely resembles benches or pommel horses almost in gymnastics. By having this unlikely and surprising or ambiguous furniture in there, it actually keeps teams on their toes so that they don’t fall back into the sitting back and lounging for a long time posture. It keeps the energy up.

It’s funny, but after pre-school, I don’t think any classroom I ever sat in really encouraged creativity or better learning through its space design. Sometimes, I remember, we reorganized furniture to create a circle rather than sit in the pre-defined grid arrangement, and those were always the best classes somehow. The teacher didn’t feel so distant, and all of the students actually got to see each other’s faces, and there was no hierarchy in terms of the ‘achievers’ who sat in the front of the class and the ‘laggards’ at the back. It would be interesting to see more experiments with classroom design to see what exactly aids learning and what does not.

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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