Many companies from the “new work” or “new economy” eras designed their workspaces in a very colorful and playful way. Open-plan offices with furniture in bright colors, along with table soccer and beanbags still dominate the workplace in many organizations. Although these designs have many benefits for creative work (which I will discuss at some other time), in this post, I would like to talk about the opposite strategy: the minimalist office.
#1: Why a Minimalist Office?
When people think of creativity and inspiration at the workspace, they might think that the more stimulation they provide, the better. Those people tend to decorate their workspaces with tons of inspirational magazines, colorful elements, posters, fancy furniture, and playful objects.
Another common belief is the notion of “creative chaos”. A messy work environment that is overly filled with inspirational stuff, is supposed to trigger some creative breakthroughs. Well, there might be some truth to this, but one should also beware of potential pitfalls related to these strategies.
First, these inspirational materials might lead to the so-called “fixation effect”, which means that the displayed solutions prevent the creative person to come up with different, more original ideas.
And secondly, the overly presence of stimulating materials, games, and gadgets can lead to distraction and a lack of focus. In fact, the over-stimulation can make it impossible to conduct so-called “deep work”.
Let’s take a look at both problems in more detail.
The term “fixation” originally stems from psychology and was first introduced by Sigmund Freud. It describes a form of being obsessed with something or someone. In the context of design and creativity, design fixation describes the inappropriate repetition of existing ideas. The mere presence of existing solutions can easily induce people to come up with similar ideas (which is mostly an unconscious process). The well-known saying “if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” describes this effect pretty well. To stick with this metaphor: if your workspace only shows you a hammer, you will not easily come up with the idea to use a pair of scissors or a 3D printer to solve your problem.
By contrast, a work environment that does not present such existing solutions, ideas, or tools, will allow the creative mind to develop their own concepts and to think outside the box.
#3: Deep Work
Another problem of busy work environments is the risk of multitasking and distraction, which are both considered the enemies of productivity by author and computer science professor Cal Newport. This problem has been described in his book “Deep Work” (2016), in which he refers to several scientific studies that show the decrease in productivity when being distracted or when working on several tasks at the same time. Especially the overly involvement of email communication and social media make it almost impossible to get things done. For this goal one would need a mental state that Newport calls “deep work” — being immersed in only one task at a time.
To create zones or time frames of deep work, Cal Newport introduces four strategies:
- The monastic approach, which suggests eliminating all distractions and creating a secluded work environment like in a monastery.
- The bimodal approach, which involves a long, predefined period of secluded work and leaves the rest of the time for everything else.
- The rhythmic approach that suggests some sort of time boxing, in which intervals of deep work and other work take turns.
- The journalistic approach, where the idea is to make use of unused or unexpected time slots (like commuting times) for deep work.
#4: Actionable Advice
Minimalist vs. Boring
It is important to understand that “minimalist” is not to be confused with “boring”. The goal is not to provide a grey cubicle with no stimulation at all. Instead, provide a space that allows you to fill it with your own ideas. Provide a platform for those ideas, such as a wide, empty desk, or white walls or whiteboards. Consider light and warm natural tones for walls and furniture. Cream, beige, and light gray can be combined with natural wooden furniture and a few plants. When adding some colorful accents, make sure they are muted, like in a watery light blue, a pale sage green, or a vanilla yellow. And just pick one accent color—that should suffice.
The workspace should leave room for your imagination. It should be a blank stage for placing your own ideas, instead of presenting you with tons of stimulating ideas that might suppress the emersion of new ones.
Look at Best Practice Examples
Looking at some exemplary minimalist office spaces will illustrate the power of reduced office interiors and provide you with ideas for designing your own.
To get even more inspiration and ideas for minimalist office spaces, feel free to check out Dezeen’s blogpost on minimalist office spaces, which presents 12 offices from around the world, or this blogpost on 10 minimalist home offices.
Another great example for minimalist workspace interior is the so-called “white room” at Stanford’s d.school
At Stanford’s School of Design Thinking (d.school) you can find one room that is completely white; with the only furniture being a white Ottoman and walls covered with whiteboard-paint. According to director George Kembel it is the school’s most used space. There is no distraction, ideas can be captured immediately on the walls, and it’s “the ideas that become the color of the space”. Read the full story of the White Room at Fast Company.
#5: Further Reading
There is a multitude of resources that you might want to refer to in order to get a better understanding of the relevance and impact of the discussed concepts on your creativity and your work environment.
Get the book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” (2016) by Cal Newport. It will provide you with valuable insights on how to create the perfect work environment for focused work. Buy on Amazon*
*This is an affiliate link. If you buy through this link I will get a small commission at no extra cost for you.
There are also several relevant studies on the concept of design fixation that can be consulted to scientifically explain the benefits of a minimalist workspace. You might want to look for example, into the following papers: “Design Fixation” by David Jansson and Steven Smith, or “Variances in the impact of visual stimuli on design problem solving performance” by Gabriela Goldschmidt and Maria Smolkov.
Yes, sometimes we need colorful and playful stuff, but you should not forget about the risks of too much stimulation, and the power of a minimalist office design for deep, focused creative work.