The impact of noise on creativity

coffeeshopThere’s an interesting heuristic that says that open plan offices are anathema to creativity.  The hubbub of interruptions and disruptions cause so many breaks to our concentration that it renders creative thought impossible.

A prime case in point was a recent study by architecture firm Gensler into open plan offices.  It found that open plan offices can often create so much interaction between people that it actually harms our ability to work productively, and indeed collaboratively.

“Collaboration can be taken too far. It actually has diminishing returns,” Diane Hoskins, co-CEO of Gensler, said . ”When everybody’s collaborating around you, you can’t focus.”

So too much noise can disrupt our workflow, but what about too little noise?  A new site is based around the idea that we need a bit of background noise in order to work well.  The site, called Coffitivity aims to replicate the noise we experience in our favourite coffee shops from the comfort of our desks.

The site was inspired by research showing that the noise made by coffee machines and so on is actually just the right amount of background noise to stimulate our creative juices.

The research was conducted by the University of Illinois, who asked participants to brainstorm ideas for new products whilst listening to various levels of background noise.  They found that the 70 decibels provided by things like a television or a coffee shop is optimum.

This compared to the 50 decibels we are surrounded by in a quiet environment, or the 80 decibels of a noisy environment such as next to a blender, both of which were less than optimum.

The finding sounds counterintuitive, but the researchers believe that quiet environments allow us to focus too much on the task at hand, which then inhibits our creativity.

“This is why if you’re too focused on a problem and you’re not able to solve it,” they said, “you leave it for some time and then come back to it and you get the solution.”

Of course, this environment only works well for creative tasks for which a bit of distraction is beneficial.  When we’re doing work that demands attention to detail, quiet environments come out trumps.

The findings mirror those from a few weeks ago that looked at the visual conditions that encourage creativity.  It found that innovation thrives when the light in the room is dim rather than bright.  Whether adding a bit of background hum to the low level lighting super charges the effect is at this stage unknown, but let me know if you try it out in your own workplace.



10 thoughts on “The impact of noise on creativity

  1. Gotta feel for the poor sods who run the coffee shops though haven't you? Can't imagine they dreamed of their cafes being filled by people glued to their laptops for hours on end. That kind of place would soon become the kind of cafe I'd avoid like the plague.

  2. Hmm, interesting. I do like popping out to a cafe, but seldom do so for work purposes. The whole working in a cafe culture hasn't really spread down this way, and it's nice that tables aren't hogged by people all day.

  3. Yes, that's very true, I think if you're going to stay in a cafe for any length of time then you should at least buy a coffee per hour, probably something to eat as well.

  4. Not sure if it was an urban legend but JK Rowlings was said to have written her Harry Potter books, at least the first few ones, in a local cafe. Worked out well for her! I also go to cafe every now and then to work and find it quite productive and yes, I always buy at least a latte and/or pastry to encourage the owner. Having said that, cafe owners know they do get some patronage, hence why Starbucks' positioning once was to become the "3rd place" after work and home.

    • Going off on a slight tangent, but I guess the cafe owners appreciate that during the traditional 9-5 work period it's often their quieter time, so having folks in there making it look busy and thriving is no bad thing. I'd imagine they'd be less enthralled if folks are blocking up tables say at 8am or during lunch time.

  5. I don't have the luxury of working from a coffee shop, but do find that a bit of background noise benefits my work. This is usually some music or radio.

  6. Environment can impact the focus and output for sure. I have experimented a little with this for myself. I also have tried earplugs to tune out any sound and find that too much silence can actually disrupt the flow of focus and make my mind wander.

  7. You know, I gotta wonder about that a little bit about that research though. They studied 65 undergrads. Me personally (I'm 30), things that used to really motivate/inspire/energize me as a student are now just plain distracting when I work. I guess I'd want to see some evidence that this part of our brain works similarly after school (whereas it certainly doesn't appear to hold in general). I'd also really wonder about introverts… a lot of folks, most publicly and recently Susan Cain, have argued that the workplace is skewed against introverts… would these results hold if you looked at introverts, or would this sort of thing make Cain's argument even stronger?

    It's an interesting idea. Not quite sure I'd buy it just yet though.

    • Hi Evan, thanks for stopping by. The research seems to chime with a couple of others I've read recently that focus on the role of focus on our creativity. The basic zeitgeist seems to be that when we're moderately distracted, be that through noise, lighting etc., we are more creative.

      It should be said of course that the reverse is also true, that when we need to concentrate on things, silence is often best. It's also worth remembering that the level of noise is important. I suspect the average office can be a lot noiser than the average cafe, with well publicised impacts upon productivity.

      What's your work environment like?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *