A closer view to creative thinking

How designers think or how the creative thinking and problem-solving processes work have been subjects of several studies (Goldschmidt, 1990; Cross et al., 1996; among others) involving a wide range of disciplines and fields from cognition, psychology, visual thinking to design research. Particularly, every time I need to write or think, I can easily be found in my favourite Coffee shop across the road. For me, coffee shops are neutral places in which the background noise helps me stay focus on my task for longer periods of time than at home. Also, I complement my thinking process with the use of napkins (and other sheets of papers) in which I document and visualise my ideas. Related to this, long time ago I wrote a post about the power of napkins for creative thinking and the influence of Dan Roam’s book in this matter. Not while ago, I read an article on The Guardian which presented a study conducted at the University of British Columbia to understand the impact of ambient noises in creative thinking. The initial motivation of the study was to find a way to optimise creativity, such as brainstorming and initial stages of creative problems. I haven’t read the article in full yet, because it will be published next December by the Journal of Consumer Research, but reviews and comments have given a pretty good overview of the article. Key points from the article could be of great interest for understanding (a bit more) the design thinking and conceptual stages of the design process.

The article presents a research study conducted to measure the impact of noise in creative thinking. Sixty-five students were involved in this experiment referred as ‘Restaurant Experience Study’. Those students were asked to complete several creative tasks under different levels of background noise from roadside diner to noise mall. Results indicated that people seem to respond with ‘higher creative outputs’ when working with a background noise of 70 decibels, often described as moderate volume. ‘Moderate background noise induces distraction which encourages individuals to think at a higher, abstract level, and consequently exhibit higher creativity’ explained Mehta et al. (2012), authors of the article. However, results also shown that the best to stimulate creativity is short, periodic intervals immersed in an environment with moderate volume noise, such as a coffee shop, instead of spending long working hours. Above 70 decibels, noise is considered annoying and can hurt.

Examples of noise sources organised by their intensity. Noises produced by helicopters at 100 ft and by plane take-offs can produce serious damage after 8 hours of exposure. Coffee places are pointed out as the places having the average level of sound, that can be disturbed some people and be at the same time the ideal level for others. Noises below 70 decibels, such as conversations at home or bird calls, are described as fairly quiet and unlikely to hurt; while noises with 20 decibels or less, such as whispers, are barely audible.

Interestingly, a previous study on creative performance has also indicated the influence of the presence of noise on creative thinking, but pointing out some conditions that should be considered in order to get positive results. First, the level of complexity of the creative task has a key role. Briefly, the difference between performing creative simple and complex tasks is that the later demands ‘great parallel processing and wider breadth attention’ (Kasof, 1997). The study suggests that while the distraction generated by background noise ‘improves performance on simple tasks’, it reduces the breadth of attention necessary for complex tasks, distracting ‘attention away from the task at hand’ (Kasof, 1997).

Examples of creative tasks grouped by their level of complexity (Kasof, 1997)

Then, the people’s problem-solving approach is indicated as another factor which highly influence a performance with moderate background noise. Mehta et al. (2012) add that people who are already classified as ‘highly creative’ tend to respond more positively to moderate ambient noise than those who are not. In other words, under normal circumstances, people with wider trait breadth of attention is more likely to perform with more creativity than those with narrower trait breadth of attention. While, in other cases, working with ambient background noise can reduce breadth of attention and therefore ‘inhibit creative performance’.

In short, many variables are involved in the creative thinking process. Some of them are listed as follows:

– Decibel level of background noise

  • Background noise can influence creative performance in both positive and negative ways,

– Trait breadth of attention

  • ‘Trait breadth of attention correlates with creative performance,
  • Unpredictable noise [can] impair creative performance more than [can do] predictable noise,
  • Intelligible noise [can] impair creative performance more than [can do] unintelligible noise,
  • Each of the noise manipulations impairs creative performance more in people whose trait breadth of attention is wide than in those whose trait of breadth of attention is narrow’ (Kasof (1997:306),

– Creative task complexity

  • Creative task complexity can influence the performance when working with background noise

– People’s problem-solving approach

  • People’s problem-solving approach and level of background noise can influence the quality of the creative performance (Mehta et al., 2012).

Looking forward to reading forthcoming article!


– Cross, N., Christiaans, H. and Dorst, K. (1996) Analysing Design Activity. England: John Willey & Sons.
– Goldschmidt G., (1990) Linkography: Assessing Design Productivity. In: Cybernetics and Systems ’90, Trappl, R. (Ed.) Proceedings of the Tenth European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems Research, Singapore: World Scientific, pp. 291-298.
– Hickman, L. (2012) Want to get creative? Then visit a coffee shop [Online article] The Guardian Newspaper [Accessed 24 June 2012]
– Kasof, J. (1997). Creativity and breadth of attention. Creativity Research Journal. Vol. 10(4), pp.303-15.
– Mehta, R.,  Zhu, R.J. and Cheema, A. (2012) Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition. Journal of Consumer Research: December.
– Toplyn, G. and Maguire, W. (1991) The differential effect of noise on creative task performance. Creativity Research Journal. Vol. 4(4).
– Villarica, H. (2012) Study of the Day: Why Crowded Coffee Shops Fire Up Your Creativity [Online article] The Atlantic [Accessed 10 September 2012]


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