2 Surprising Ways to Boost Creativity

by Katherine Gustafson on October 24, 2013

When it comes to achieving business success, creativity may be more important than rigor, discipline, integrity, and even vision. So how, as an entrepreneur, do you keep your creative juices flowing day in and day out? And how do you encourage your employees to use their imaginations to develop innovative products and services?

For starters, you’ll want to create the right atmosphere at work — and psychologists have made a couple of surprising discoveries to that end. Their findings boil down to this: To foster creativity, dim the lights, and then make a mess.

Dim the Lights

A team of German researchers recently found that dimming the lights in your room boosts creative thinking. In their experiments, subjects in rooms lit to varying levels of brightness were asked to solve a series of creative insight problems. The subjects in the most dimly lit room answered more of the problems correctly and also reported feeling the most self-confident and the least constrained by outside influences.

The researchers posit in the Journal of Environmental Psychology that the dimness “elicits a feeling of freedom, self-determination, and reduced inhibition,” which leads to more creativity. But there are some caveats: The effect only occurs when the dim light shines down from directly overhead or was produced by a bare light bulb. And the process of analyzing and implementing the creative ideas works better in bright light.

Luckily, you don’t necessarily have to dim the lights to get the benefit. Taking several minutes to think about an experience of being in darkness, such as remembering the sensation of feeling your way around the furniture in a dark room, is enough to get you thinking less conventionally.

While installing 15-watt overhead lamps or conducting daily mental exercises can boost your team’s creativity, don’t stop there. Next, take time to toss some papers around.

Make a Mess

A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota has found that disorderly environments can inspire creative thinking and lead to surprising insights. Their work demonstrates that a neat and tidy office promotes conventional thinking and risk-aversion, whereas a messy one encourages new and innovative ideas.

Test subjects were placed in rooms that were either orderly or in disarray (with papers randomly strewn about the table and floor). Participants were instructed to think of 10 unusual uses for pingpong balls, which were rated for their level of creativity. The subjects in the messy room predictably came up with more outside-the-box ideas than those sitting in the neat environment.

“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” the team writes in the journal Psychological Science. “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”

So, the next time you hold a brainstorming session with your staff, consider dimming the lights and messing up the room before the meeting starts. It may be all you need to do to set their creative minds free.