An Interview with Environmental Psychologist: Joren van Dijk on Creative Spaces

For many people I meet, everything seems to be going well in life, but they’re not feeling quite happy. With all the information, options and resources available nowadays (in the part of the world that lives in abundance), people seem to be lacking the spark, inspiration and intrinsic motivation more than ever. That’s why I belive we can benefit from exploring ways to enhance the level of creativity in our lives, presuming that being creative is a happier mode of human existence than repeating patters and being uninspired.

Everyday creativity of ordinary people has been a very interesting research subject for scientists in recent years (as opposed to creativity defined as a rare trait of exquisite individuals resulting in historically new scientific discoveries and great works of art – which was “the original” definition of creativity). In other words, creativity for the rest of us has been “discovered”. That’s why I’m happy to learn something about designing spaces that nudge ordinary people to find creative solutions to everyday problems from Joren van Dijk, a Dutch environmental psychologist and the founder of (Dutch for environmental psychologist). Joren  consults organizations on how to design interior and exterior in order to facilitate people in achieving their goals.


Your research revolves around the idea of white space. What is that?

White space is a concept borrowed from graphical design. White space is the space not filled in (or left open). Because a lot of graphic design is on white paper, this is called white space. However, white space can have any color. For instance, if you have a blue wall and nothing interferes with that wall, you can call that white space, too.

Skype office, Stockholm; photo by BlÃ¥ Station

And you believe that white space can boost creativity?

Yes, my thesis is that by ‘adding’ white space (space left open), you can stimulate creativity. By this, I do not mean that the space should be designed minimalistic, I mean that a lot of stuff can be removed just to allow people to express themselves. In my master thesis (on perceptual fluency in interior design, 2010), I found something congruent with this idea – a room with more white space evoked more positive affect, as opposed to rooms with less white space.

De Wolven office (PR company), Amsterdam; photo by wovox

Is positive affect related to creativity?

Yes, the impact of positive affect on creativity has been well established by Isen and colleagues (e.g., 2001) who argue that positive affect stimulates creative behaviors, in part because it stimulates free, out of the box thinking.

Flavour (branding company), Amsterdam; photo by wovox

It seems like you could be on the right track with your thesis. After all, many artists seek solitude and less stimulation from their environment when they want to work, and their studios are often “full of white space”. Did you measure your participants’ creativity, too?

We didn’t measure the participants’ creativity at that point. We planned some next experiments to do so. At the moment, the project is on hold, but if we find  investors who find the project worthwhile, we will certainly pick up this one!

Open work and consultation room at Microsoft Nederlandphoto by wovox

So, it’s a work in progress, then. Your idea is very different from the practice seen in big companies such as Google, Pixar, Facebook that offer fun environments for their employees to boost their creativity (e.g. check out this list of best offices to work in and all the toys available there).  Are those two approaches opposing?

Fun environments are characterized by colorful materials, luxurious facilities such as gyms or lounge areas, and gimmicks such as jukeboxes and pool tables. In part, those environments ‘became’ creative environments because they attracted creative people. Fun‐inspiring environments may indeed boost creativity (Baldry & Hallier, 2010), however, I offer an alternative to the fun environment approach, by arguing that adding white space to the “ordinary workspace” can enhance the creative behavior of the “ordinary employees”. The paradox is, I believe, not everyone likes the fun environment approach. Take for instance an insurance company as example, I don’t see such an approach working.

Table football at Mangrove (Internet services), Rotterdam; photo by wovox

Just to stretch the idea a little further, you actually suggest taking away some resources  from people for their own good, instead of offering everything on a platter? Many parents and employees will like the idea that you don’t actually need to supply those you take care of with everything to give them everything they need…

Well, actually, a similar notion takes shape in the writings of Csikszentmihalyi (1997) who suggests that the availability of too many devices (i.e., a lack of white space) makes individuals too comfortable and makes them hesitant to step out of their ‘comfort zone’. He suggests that taking away resources (and thereby creating white space) promotes creativity by inspiring people to explore their surroundings.

Buutvrij (advertising company), Amsterdam; photo by wovox

Are there any other ways to nudge creative behavior beside stimulating positive affect?

Sure, research show that the chances of creative solutions  increase with physical movement (Blanchette et al., 2005)  or taking a break (Dijksterhuis & Nordgren,2006). The working environment can be designed in a manner that it allows movement (white space), or a place to remove from a task in the case of fixation or stagnation (to take a break). Also, consider stand‐up meetings. There is evidence that they are shorter in duration than regular meetings  (by 33%, in one research), whereas the quality of the decisions  remains unchanged (Bluedorn, Turban, and Love, 1999).

Vandejong (branding company) Amsterdam;  photo by wovox

Dr. House style? People  leaning on desks?

That’s one example of how creative problem resolving can work. The show also demonstrates that the development and implementation of creative ideas often requires input and support from multiple individuals (Mumford, Scott, Gaddis, & Strange, 2002). Hence another way to stimulate creativity through the design of a workspace is by facilitating social interactions and increasing access to relevant information.

Rhetorica (Danish communication company); photo by TobiasMik · WhatWeDo

Ok, this was all very useful for designing creative workspaces. What are your predictions about the effects of  white space at home? The private sphere of our lives also requires a lot of creating, problem solving, going outside the comfort zone. Does it matter in what kind of (physical) environment it all takes place?

Of course it matters! Visual clutter, the random distributed stuff that you can see, consumes mental resources (McMains & Kasner, 2011). These resources can be depleted, causing a feeling of a loss of focus, exhaustion or irritability. Furthermore, the mere availability of random stuff increases the risk of being distracted from that what you want to achieve.

Clutter-free home; photo by GranitArchitects

White-space-filled home vs. memorabilia-filled home?

Don’t get me wrong, white space doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no space for memorabilia or other stuff. It is more an argument to get everything out of the room and then think of what is really necessary in your room. Of course, if you get a good feeling of a picture of your girlfriend, than it has a purpose. The danger, however, is that in lots of rooms, buildings or houses, the interior is collected and just added. In the end, you have lots of stuff collected and no clue where it all came from.

Sometimes, it isn’t necessarily to remove stuff to create white space. Simple sorting of stuff can do a lot to create an environment that’s easier to perceive (which is, in the end, the purpose of white space). For instance, you can sort your books in your bookcase, clothes in your wardrobe or DVDs in your multimedia rack by color. This makes it easier to perceive. And for the people who are afraid that they cannot find their stuff, trust me, you will. Unconsciously you register the color of the books you read, so thereby you can easily find them. Of course, some books will be harder to find, but hey, be honest, don’t you have to look for your books in the alphabetic order?

References/ Recommended reading

Blanchette, D., Ramocki, S., Oʼdel, J., & Casey, M. (2005). Aerobic Exercise and Creative Potenial: Immediate and Residual Effects. Creativity Research Journal, 17(2), 257‐264.

Bluedorn, A. C., Turban, D. B., & Love, M. S. (1999). The effects of stand‐up and sit‐down meeting formats on meeting outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(2), 277‐285.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. HarperPerennial, New York.

George, J. M., & Zhou, J. (2007). Dual tuning in a supportive context: Joint contributions of positive mood, negative mood, and supervisory behaviors to employee creativity. Academy of Management Journal, 50, 605‐622.

Isen, A. M. (2001). An Influence of Positive Affect on Decision Making in Complex Situations: Theoretical Issues with Practical Implications. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 11(2), 75‐85.

McMains, S., & Kastner, S. (2011). Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in human visual cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience: the Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31 (2), 587-97.

Meel, J. V., & Vos, P. (2001). Funky offices: Reflections on office design in the “new economy.” Journal of Corporate Real Estate, 3(4), 322‐334.

Shalley, C. E., & Gilson, L. L. (2004). What leaders need to know: A review of social and contextual factors that can foster or hinder creativity. Leadership Quarterly, 15, 33‐53.

Stokols, D., Clitheroe, H. C., & Zmuidzinas, M. (2002). Qualities of Work Environments That Promote Perceived Support for Creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 14(2), 137‐147.

Van Dijk, J., Tanja‐Dijkstra, K., & Rompay, T. J. L. V. (2010). Perceptual fluency in interior design: a study towards the effects of minimalistic and gestalt interior design on users experiences.

7 Comments to “An Interview with Environmental Psychologist: Joren van Dijk on Creative Spaces”

  1. Great interview! Joren describes perfectly what I’ve been thinking sub-consciously about the design of my home, and now I understand why. Thanks for a great post!

    • Hey Stephanie! Yes, his ideas fit so well with your sense of aesthetics, from what I’ve seen on your blog 🙂 I belive we’re all aware of the effects of clutter (vs. “white space”) at some level but we tend to underestimate it and get used to it. Thank you for visiting.

  2. fabulous interview! i completely agree that you don’t always need to remove the memorabilia to create white space.

  3. Interesting…I have never heard of an environmental psychologist before !

  4. I recently found this blog, this interview is really great and the whole blog is such a great resource for people new to environmental psychology and those (like my self) who just finished a Masters in it. Thanks!

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