Can offbeat venues make attendees more imaginative and productive?

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Can offbeat venues make attendees more imaginative and productive?

Gather a bunch of creative minds together in one room for any length of time and they’re bound to generate some good ideas. But just how innovative those ideas are might have more to do with the room itself than people generally admit.

The belief that the design and aesthetics of meeting rooms actually can enhance the efficiency or creativity of people working inside them is the driving principle behind a number of dedicated meeting venues that now are sprouting up across the country. Places like Blue Ocean Facilities in Cincinnati; Catalyst Ranch and Thinkubator, both in Chicago; The Launching Pad in Delray Beach, Fla.; Sparkspace in Columbus, Ohio; and The Workshop in Louisville, Ky., all market themselves to planners as specially designed environments conducive to extraordinarily productive or creative meetings.

While the details differ, these venues sharebasic design elements. They have high levels of visual and tactile stimulation; bold, contrasting colors; whimsical décor; open, flexible meeting areas; a variety of soft, comfortable seating options; prevalent windows and natural light; and symbolic objects such as toys, trinkets or artwork that reinforce concepts of acceptance, risk-taking and innovation. Some venues are even stocked withvintage furniture, intended to remind attendees of their childhood, a period of their lives when imagination knew no limits.

“I believe environment matters,” says Mike Docherty, developer of The Launching Pad and CEO of Venture2 Inc., a Delray Beach, Fla.-based consulting firm that helps clients innovate. “For companies to be more innovative, they need to be in environments that foster creativity.” A Corporate culture that rewards originality is critical, Docherty allows, but physical space is key, too.

In recent years, especially when it comes to office design, corporation shave started to buy into the idea that the physical working environment can be manipulated to give employees a boost. “There are things the built environment can do to make the White collar work process more effective,” asserts Frederick Schmidt, managing principal of the Chicago-based design firm The Environments Group, which has helped design offices for clients such as Crate & Barrel, ESPN and Google.

Popular trends in workplace design involve clear-cutting jungles of isolating offices and cubicles, eliminating the physical reinforcement of bureaucratic hierarchies and encouraging more interaction between employees. The goal is to make the workplace more social, in hopes that even casual contact between the right people, regardless of whether they work together on a day-to-day basis, can spark great ideas.

But just how much can design strategies improve off-site meeting rooms, which by definition already are hubs for social interaction, and in which employees might spend only a few days, or hours, each year? Can the color of the walls, the presence of an Etch-A-Sketch or the feel of a human hand-shaped chair actually make attendees think more creatively? And if so, can planners, who are looking to give their attendees every possible advantage, afford to ignore the power of design?

Breaking it down

Even skeptics must admit that the physical environment can have a profound effect on meetings. The basic argument goes something like this: Would you rather meet in an overcrowded, windowless room with uncomfortable furniture and flickering, fluorescent lights, or in an airy room on the top floor of an office building, with expansive views, ergonomic chairs and access to a terrace?

“If you dislike your boss or if you dislike your job, no matter how beautiful the meeting room is, you’re going to dislike being there,” says Schmidt. Still, he says, the space can go a long way to positively influence the outcome.

Which design elements are most responsible for optimizing meeting rooms? Both Schmidt and Andrew Laing, managing director of DEGW North America, a New York City-based corporate design firm, agree that the most important features are functional, not aesthetic. Even the blandest of meeting rooms could win their endorsement.

The space has to be the right size for the group, Laing says, the configuration has to be appropriate, and technology has to work properly and be integrated cleanly into the design of the room. Good light and air quality are vital, Schmidt adds, and even details like having proper space to store luggage can make a big difference. The best meeting rooms, says Schmidt, will feel spacious and serene. Service-related details also are critical: clean bathrooms, good food, continually refreshed pots of coffee and an abundance of office supplies.


None of these guidelines seems to require funkiness. So why the whale murals at Blue Ocean Facilities? Why the monkey on a pogo stick or the Chinese art on the walls at the Catalyst Ranch? Lacking conclusive scientific research to support their design decisions, the founders of the creative venues subscribe to the theory that the more stimulating the room is, the better primed the brain will be to produce creative ideas.

“If you can engage all five senses, there’s a benefit,” says Eva Niewiadomski, owner of Catalyst Ranch. Hence, the pipe cleaners, silly hats and ethnic food. The green sailboat with rainbow sails hanging from the ceiling at The Launching Pad. The karaoke room at the Thinkubator. The putting green at Sparkspace.

But do these elements foster better meetings? The evidence, if anecdotal,is overwhelming. Paul Boulis, president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois and board chairman for the Arts & Business Council of Chicago, is a satisfied Catalyst Ranch client. He says the space “gets people’s blood flowing,” and his groups tend to be more communicative and candid there than in other spaces. Boulishas hosted events at various nontraditional venues, but, he says, the other places are “not nearly as interesting.”

Jacqueline Pauls, senior manager of leadership and organization development for Chicago-based U.S. Cellular, is also a longtime client of Catalyst Ranch and apologizes for sounding like an official publicist for the venue. “It’s hard to find anything commercial that I would get this excited about,” Pauls explains. “The only company I get more excited about is ours.”

Pauls says the venue has a welcoming vibe that is both a reflection of, and inspiration for, the design. “Photographs don’t even begin to capture the feeling,the energy of Catalyst Ranch,” she says.The main purpose of her meetings is to strengthen relationships among the company’s leaders, and Pauls says the space facilitates more intimate interaction— thanks mostly to the sofas —than would be possible in a traditional meeting room. “Now I always insist on are treat-like setting,” she says.

Nancy Hower, executive secretary, corporate market research, for Nationwide Insurance, based in Columbus, Ohio, is a devoted client of Sparkspace for a similar reason. “It’s just so relaxing and comfortable,”she says. “I think we’re more productive because we’re more relaxed.”

When she conducted feedback surveys about recent meetings at Sparkspace, Kimberly Cromwell, a senior development coordinator in the human resources department of the Columbus Children’s Hospital, found that her attendees were more enthusiastic about the space as a comfortable and positive learning environment than they were about the content and execution of the meeting. Three of her four groups gave Sparkspace better marks on the survey than any other aspect of the meeting. “I don’t think we could be as successful” in more traditional meeting spaces, Cromwell says. “People’s tone changes when they walk through the door.”

Clients often say these venues feel more like their living rooms than meeting rooms, and that they simply enjoy spending time there. Planners say attendees let down their guard and open their minds when they arrive. “The fact that most people want to stay in the space and not leave is a strong indication of value,” says Gerald Haman, developer of Thinkubator. He claims 96 percent of attendees indicate on surveys that they find Thinkubator to be “more effective than other meeting spaces.”

Mark Henson, creator of Sparkspace, gets the same feedback: “We hear comments like, ‘We got more accomplished in one day at Sparkspace than in two months of meetings in our own space.’ ”

DEGW’s Laing confirms there can be advantages inherent to meeting off-site, including a renewed sense of purpose. “Part of the value of external places is that they are different; they are taking you out of the normal mode of meeting and working with colleagues,” he says.

But are the results quantifiable? Attendees might report that they’re more relaxed in a certain environment and thus might be more willing to take risks, a prerequisite for innovation. They might say they feel more creative in one space vs. another. Planners might observe that groups produce particularly out-of-the box solutions in a certain setting. But can physical space actually affect creativity?

Academic Perspective

Janetta McCoy thinks so. McCoy is a professor of interior design at Washington State University and might be the only academic studying the link between work environment design and creativity. While she hasn’t studied meeting spaces specifically, McCoy’s office design research has demonstrated that not only do some people feel more creative in certain work environments, “they sometimes are more creative.”

For her master’s thesis at Arizona State University, McCoy devised a pair of experiments “to examine the potential role of interior design elements in fostering creativity.” Along with professor Gary W. Evans, McCoy wanted to determine which specific elements of an environment contribute to its “creativity potential” — the power to foster creative ideas — and also how those spaces affect people working on tasks that require original thinking.

For the first study, she presented hundreds of photographs of different rooms to students and asked: “If you had a very special problem to solve and needed to generate a lot of new ideas, where would you most likely choose to go?” The top selections were determined to be high in creativity potential.

McCoy found no correlation between creativity potential and the size or shape of the room, or the quality or quantity of light. Rooms that were most attractive to students were spatially complex, visually detailed, built with natural materials, designed for interaction and had views of the outdoors. Rooms offering both textured wood and glass were positively associated with creativity potential, as were spaces that prompted curiosity and exploration. Factors that tended to bring down a room’s creativity potential were cool colors (blues, greens, purples), the absence of views and the prominent use of manufactured materials.

McCoy then tested students doing creative work in two different spaces, one with a high creativity potential rating, the other with a low rating. The students took a standardized test designed to gauge creativity and also were asked to make collages that expressed their personalities “in interesting, unusual and clever ways.” Test scores were unaffected by the physical environment, she found, but students produced more creative collages, as determined by an independent panel, in the space with the higher creativity potential.

Variations on a theme

Among creative meeting venues, the environments vary. On one end of the spectrum, Catalyst Ranch looks as if toddler’s birthday party might break out at any moment: Play-Doh and stuffed animals are in ample supply. Niewiadomski acknowledges that people have different comfort levels with toys in a“work” environment, and her staff never forces groups to play — but most do.
Cromwell, of the Columbus Children’s Hospital, says the games, toys and puzzles available at Sparkspace are advantageous to her attendees, especially the more introverted personalities who can grab a Rubik’s cube and play around during meeting breaks to feel more comfortable in the space and connect with other attendees. “It provokes a lot of discussion,” she adds.

Other venues, such as Blue Ocean Facilities and The Launching Pad, take more reserved approach. “I was never a bouncy-ball kind of person,” says Gus Valen, founder of Blue Ocean and managing partner of The Valen Group, a Cincinnati-based strategy and innovation consulting firm. “Wacky, goofy stuff did not do it for me. Playfulness is important, but it doesn’t have to be kid-oriented.”

Valen’s venue emphasizes design: comfortable furniture, flexible spaces, bright colors and décor with an ocean theme. He touts the 26 double-sided whiteboards on wheels, and large walls for taping up posters or other materials, as supportive of the creative process.

The Launching Pad’s Docherty preaches the benefit of services provided by his consulting staff – from custom music playlists to research analysis— that help ideas take flight. Other venues also bring in innovators to facilitate meetings, but at The Launching Pad, the service is a core part of the experience.

The Launching Pad has a decidedly homey feel, with hardwood floors, sofas with bright pillows and windows that look out onto the natural surroundings. One room is dedicated to meditation and “cardio respiratory synchronization,”a calming technique that harmonizes breathing and heart rate, which Docherty says helps clear the mind.