Mad About . . .

How To Boost Your Creativity At Home (book extract)

26th March 2020
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A long read for you today which you can book mark for later or peruse in stages as it’s mostly broken down into long bullet points. Listeners to the podcast will remember that we reviewed this book last year and I found it completely fascinating. You can listen to the episode here (look for 31 October) and the accompanying post and show notes is here.

But I was fascinated by this particular book: My Creative Space: how to design your home to stimulate ideas and spark innovation by Donald Rattner. As blurb says; For over twenty years, scientists have been discovering connections between our physical surroundings and the creative mind. Written by a noted architect, My Creative Space is the first book to turn this rich trove of psychological research into practical techniques for shaping a home that will boost your creativity.

string shelves in the home of Nathalie Aubry

string shelves in the home of Nathalie Aubry

So it felt like a good time to to back to it in a little more detail. I’d love to know what you think. And as we’re going for it how about a quote from Winston Churchill from the opening page of the book:

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us  – Winston Churchill

In the introduction Rattner says: My goal is to show how you can unlock the hidden power of home to boost creativity and spur innovation. It doesn’t matter what style [your home] is, how many square feet, how elaborately it’s decorated, where it’s located, or whether it’s a freestanding house, apartment, recreational vehicle, tiny house or dorm room.

What’s important is that you have a place that you identify as your sanctuary, your place of refuge, a safe harbour that you have carved out from the rest of the world as your own.

Rather than approach the home as either a hub or a subject of the imagination, I explore it as a stimulant, an agent of creativity. That is, in addition to furnishing a setting in which to pursue our creative interests, or being an expression of them, your home also can be designed to make you more creative by subliminally influencing how you think, feel, and act.

my gold ceiling at madaboutthehouse

Science not only verifies conventional wisdom where credit is due [as in the notion of people having good ideas in the shower which has been proven] but it also prevents us from dismissing valid techniques out of hand, no matter how ridiculous they seem. Really, would you ever imagine that the sight of a bare light bulb could escalate idea generation? The very thought sounds far-fetched. Yet that’s precisely what a research team out of Tufts University discovered after it tested the premise by conducting a series of lab experiments.

Surveys also show us that the office ranks toward the bottom of the list of places where people gain creative insights. Instead, according to the data, it’s far more likely you’ll be at home or doing something associated with residential life during moments of illumination. The more you can condition your home and habits to exploit this circumstance, the more you stand to benefit.

If science has taught us anything in the last fifty years, it’s that the pleasures of everyday creativity are vital to maintaining our mental and physical well-being. Happily, the creative mind works essentially the same whether you’re concocting a Halloween costume out of found materials, launching the next category-busting start-up, inventing a better mousetrap, writing a screenplay, brainstorming a new ad campaign, finger painting, preparing a lesson plan, coding, or coming up with a fresh colour scheme for your living room

So here are some techniques and ideas I have taken from the book which you might find interesting.


the high ceilings in georgian houses can take any decor from period to contemporary

Researchers found that subjects occupying a room with ten-foot ceilings scored higher on creativity assessment tests than subjects who performed the same exercises under eight-foot ceilings. A 2007 study explored the influence of ceiling height on cognition and found subjects were more adept at coming up with out-of-the-box solutions to creative problems when placed in a room ten feet high than subjects who took the same tests in the same room, but with a ceiling installed at eight feet. But don’t worry – on the flipside, they also found that people who worked under the dropped ceiling did better than their peers on exercises that measured analytic and logical thinking.

Fortunately, he says, in matters of the human psyche, what you perceive to be true is far more potent in eliciting a psychological response than what is actually true. You can take advantage of this by drawing on techniques that will make your ceiling appear taller than it really is.

Wall coverings and paint treatments embellished with stripes and other vertically oriented motifs, architectural panelling, and structural elements running in an upright direction will visually lift a room.

Tall bookcases, full-length drapes, artwork in portrait-oriented frames, decorative accessories mounted on walls in vertical arrangements, tall mirrors resting on the floor and angled upward, and standing lamps are among the various interior components you can leverage to amplify visual height.

Continue the wall colour or material into the ceiling. Another technique involving finishes is to extend the wall colour up into the ceiling as a border. This tricks the eye into reading the wall as continuing past the vertical plane.


Configure your creative space to afford views to the outside.

Windowed environments can facilitate creative task performance by restoring cognitive capacity, reducing stress, mental fatigue, and perceived risk, and promoting a sense of freedom and openness.

Some spaces, such as a work surface built into an alcove or under a stair, will inevitably lack a direct line of sight to the outside. In those cases, consider employing alternative tactics such  colour, plants, natural materials and artwork (all of which have proven benefits) in order to ameliorate the negative effects of a solid backdrop. And consider using a swivel chair to facilitate periodic views through any openings that might be visible behind you.

Got a view, but not a particularly pleasant one? Hang plants, install sheer curtains, or apply translucent window films embellished with floral motifs or other landscape themes to retain the semblance of an outside view and filter incoming light while sparing yourself the downsides.


Kate Watson-Smyth uses paint to create a zone or area within an open plan space. the gold dining table base and pink dining chairs make a statement against the rich navy blue gallery wall. #gallerywall #diningroom #openplan #madaboutthehouse

:work with a view image by paul craig

Find things that inspire your creative passions—vintage movie posters if you write screenplays, a bust of Albert Einstein if physics is your beat, an inspirational quote from a figure you admire, perhaps a Campbell’s soup can silkscreen by Warhol should you consider yourself a foodie or pop-culture aficionado. And of course, show your own stuff if you’re a visual artist or hobbyist. Few things beget art like art. Perhaps at the moment you can ask your children to create pictures for you to hang.


pegboard by nikki kreis

pegboard by nikki kreis

A wall can do more than enclose space; it can also provide a surface on which you can project your ideas, display those of others for inspiration, and store tools and resources for your work.


Kate Watson-Smyth and Sophie Robinson the micr-trend posh granny chic. This curved sofa with tassel fringe by soho home and anthropologie echos the look. #thegreatindoors #grannychic #madaboutthehouse

curved sofa by soho home and anthropologie (no longer in stock)

 Choose curved over straight. Furniture and room shapes with rounded profiles and details spur greater creativity than those dominated by straight lines. Studies have found that curved objects and spaces make us happy and less fearful and being happy and less fearful makes us more creative. In 2012 a pair of researchers ran an experiment in which over a hundred subjects looked at four computer-generated perspectives of the sort of furniture grouping you might have had in your living room growing up. Each ensemble consisted of a sofa, one or two lounge chairs, a couple of side tables, a lamp, a coffee table, and an area rug. Two of the renderings contained furnishings that were predominantly curved in contour and detail. The other two showed pieces characterized by straight lines and squared-off shapes. The researchers took steps to keep anything unrelated to the form factor out of the picture. The renderings were printed in grayscale to make colour choices a nonissue. Artwork was absent from the walls, while the furnishings lacked decorative embellishments. From a style standpoint everything visible could be charitably categorized as Comfortably Generic Modern. Administrators then asked subjects to rate the images according to how pleasing they found their contents, how much time they’d want to spend in the pictured environment, and how sociable the simulated setting made them feel.

The results came in: rounded beat rectilinear by every measure.


On average people generate novel ideas most proficiently when the level of ambient noise reaches seventy decibels. That’s about what you hear inside a normally busy coffee shop. It has to be white noise otherwise the brain will start to tune in and it becomes distracting


To increase the amount of natural light available try the following:

large window pane mirror from graham and green

large window pane mirror from graham and green

Move furniture out of the way of exterior openings.

Pull back on window treatments that block light, such as heavy drapes
and curtains, or replace them with products and materials having greater adjustability and translucency.

Hang mirrors on walls or stand them on floors to bounce light back into the room. The optimal location for a mirror is directly across from a source of outside light. Mirrors reflect about  95 percent of the light that strikes them.
Choose light colours for walls, floors, or ceilings. Pale shades reflect more light than darker ones. When painting, check to see if the can’s label lists a light reflectance value (LRV). Recommended values are 60 to 90 for ceilings, 35 to 60 for walls, and 20 to 30 for flooring.

Choose reflective materials and finishes for non-painted surfaces, including furniture. Generally, the higher the gloss the higher the reflectivity.

Keep your space clean – dust hinders light bounce.


It seems counterintuitive but it’s often more effective to brainstorm in subdued rather than bright light. That’s because your mind is more likely to wander
into uncharted territory when your physical surroundings are too indistinct to focus on them. In 2013, German researchers determined that peak idea formation occurs at a lighting level of 150 lux. You need around 300 lux to read. But don’t spend all your time in the dark – you need to turn the lights back up when you’re acting on the ideas you’ve had


nap on a chaise rather than a bed so as not to confuse the brain, tallulah chaise from loveyourhome.co.uk

One of the best things you can do for your creativity is to nod off for about twenty or thirty minutes a day. Research shows we’re more likely to solve problems with a restful break than when we try to muddle straight through. But avoid using your bedroom to draw a clear distinction in your mind between the different phases of sleep. Keep it ten to thirty minutes only; you must resist the temptation to nap beyond a half hour to avoid sinking into a deeper phase of sleep that leaves you groggy rather than refreshed on wakening.

Keep it regular and stop at a consistent time of day. Morning people tend to dip in the early hours of the afternoon (1:00 to 2:30 p.m.), night owls in later periods (2:30 to 4:00 p.m.).


At the office, lying down on the job could get you fired. Which is bad policy, because some people do their finest work in that position. Just ask Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, and Marcel Proust. They all wrote while lying in bed at home. In 2005, Australian psychologists Darren Lipnicki and Don Byrne observed that subjects laying on a mattress scored higher on insight problems involving anagrams than a group noodling the same puzzles on their feet. Truman Capote, was of a similar mindset: “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping.”



wine tasting rabbit mug by hammade

wine tasting rabbit mug by hammade

Recreational drinkers might be interested to know that researchers recently determined an optimal blood alcohol content for peak creative performance. Fortunately,
it’s not rip-roaring drunk, but imbibing for creativity is still a method most safely applied
at home. Before you grab that bottle off the shelf, though, be mindful that you need to calibrate your intake so as to maintain a blood alcohol content of 0.075 percent. Above or below that figure, your creative powers rapidly fall off or fail to accelerate from standard measures. For reference, the legal limit for driving under the influence in the United States is 0.08 percent. The delta between danger and creative nirvana is apparently very thin. The reason it works apparently is that it reduces your brain’s capacity to focus on one thing but sends it off on tangents. Perfect for the creative brainstorm


And here you were thinking how great it is that you don’t have to get dressed up to go to the office, make a quilt, or write a business plan. Sorry, but, according to the data, wearing something spiffier than sweatpants and a T-shirt will do your creativity good. Decking yourself out as if you were going to bed or the beach when you’re trying to do serious work sends a mixed message to the brain.


Book Cover_My Creative Space

My Creative Space by Donald Rattner is available on kindle if you’re not sure about deliveries at the current time

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  • Amy Miller 4th April 2020 at 10:05 am

    Fascinating post, thanks Kate. Whenever I have a knotty problem to solve, I take to my bed like Mrs Bennet faced with ungrateful daughters. It’s nice to know that I have some science behind me!

    • Kate Watson-Smyth 5th April 2020 at 11:43 am

      Ha I love this response and makes it sound so much more effective and literary if we can say we are channelling Mrs Bennet. I might do the same thing myself!

  • Kumi Morris 27th March 2020 at 11:37 am

    I find this science based research on space and innovation really interesting. Often when I think of home, I am thinking of comfort and delight, this is great stuff.

  • Ellen Reed 26th March 2020 at 11:44 am

    Fascinating. Insights into our creative process seem to feed the soul. Thank you!

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