Want to be smarter and more creative? Here’s how to design your space.

Smarter design makes for smarter people. You just need to know where to look—and learn—to improve creativity and boost intelligence.

young female freelancer sitting with laptop on windowsill at home

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_ Good ideas don’t always need to strike like a bolt of lightning.
_ Often, where you do your work can change the nature of your intelligence.
_ Some places make you more focused, while others improve your creativity.

For as much as pop culture glorifies the geniuses with sky-high IQs and the latest billionaire innovator, it also tends to glorify the madness that comes with that level of intelligence and creativity. 

But becoming the next Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein doesn’t have to mean hours of tortured solitude, waiting for inspiration to strike. In fact, all you may need to help improve your creativity and intelligence are a few changes to your environment.

A growing body of research has shown that certain elements of a room—things like ceiling height, the amount of natural light, and the sounds in the room—can all change your cognitive function, for better or worse. 

Here’s why the key to achieving your next breakthrough lies in your environment, not your own mind.

How design changes the way you think 

Consider two studies on the effects of room design on learning. 

The first study took place in 2006, at the University of Minnesota. Researchers separated people into two groups: one that solved a set of problems in a room with 8-foot ceilings, and another group that solved similar problems in a room with 10-foot ceilings. Their goal was to see how ceiling height affected the way people arrived at potential solutions.

The results were undeniable: People under 8-foot ceilings tended to focus more on details, while those under 10-foot ceilings used more lateral and abstract methods—in other words, more creativity. The phenomenon has come to be known as the “Cathedral Effect.”

The takeaway? If you want to focus on details, hunker down in a lower-slung room. But if you want to lift your thinking, lift your ceiling.

Study number two is a 2002 review of past research that looked at six categories of typical learning environments: indoor air quality, ventilation, and thermal comfort; lighting; acoustics; building age and quality; school size; and class size. 

The review found the differences in light source to be key for boosting creativity and intelligence. For instance, at one California school, where educators decided to bring more daylight into their classrooms, students performed up to 20% better in math and 26% better in reading because of the change. 

What do these two studies have in common? They show how your surroundings can make you think in radically different ways, even if you don’t change anything else about how you work or study. It’s an insight you can use to choose—and design—a given space to suit the work at hand.

Here’s an example.

A hypothetical scenario

Let’s say you’re chipping away on a big presentation for work or school. You’ve already outlined the first half of the presentation, and your goal today is to finish the first half and start outlining the second half.

What would be the best way to plan out your work?

One way would be to sit down at your computer, wherever it is, and just start hammering away at the document, hoping inspiration strikes at least once to propel you through your day. 

Such a strategy may feel effective. You may pat yourself on the back for making it through a grueling day. But, as we’ve seen, not considering your working environment almost guarantees you won’t tap into the right kind of thinking.

Here’s one way that might leave you better off. Start the day by separating your work into creative thinking and focused thinking, and then arrange your surroundings accordingly. 

For example, if you’ve outlined the first 10 slides out of 20, you might start the day in your basement, bedroom, or office. These spaces typically have lower ceilings and can promote focused thinking. (And don’t forget to let in plenty of light from the nearest window!) 

woman drinking coffee while using laptop

After you’ve completed those slides, you still multiple blank slides left to outline. Here you might consider moving to the living room, or the front or back porch. These places typically have higher (or no) ceilings, which will help improve creativity. If you find the ambient outdoor noise distracting, try using headphones to listen to something more focusing, or head back indoors.

The goal in customizing your work environment isn’t to discount the value of hard work. But no matter how hard you work, you may struggle in a bad environment. If you want the best results, pick an environment that’s scientifically proven to support you.

Applying the wisdom

The beauty of smarter design is that it can help anyone. You can be an engineer, a graphic designer, an illustrator, an attorney, or many other things. Most professional roles these days require at least some combination of intellectual and creative thought. This means the design of your space and your productivity are always connected.

If you remember only one thing, it’s this: If you want to focus and concentrate, work in a space that feels more intimate and constrained. If you want to improve creativity, find a room with higher ceilings and personal space to think expansively. And remember to supplement those spaces with the right acoustics and natural light.

You are (and always will be) a product of your environment. So when it comes to who you want to be—and how you want to think—choose your environment wisely.