collision spaces

On a faculty survey I distributed in October 2011, I asked about library space. Individual workspace was far more important, they reported to me, than group space. As they are mostly visual artists and performers, I wasn’t entirely surprised. But, I wondered, are they being their most creative sitting alone in their offices or studios?

Probably not. There is recent research that literally, and they mean literally, thinking “outside the box” leads people to be more creative. If you sit in a box, whether the study’s five foot cardboard one or a cubicle or an office, you are more likely to think simply and have little originality.

This week’s New Yorker article Groupthink concludes “the most creative spaces are those which hurl us together.” Jonah Lehrer mentions a few space solutions that encourage meeting of the minds without eliminating individual work time. Of course, like everything post-modern and brilliant these days, Steve Jobs is involved. His design for Pixar’s headquarters requires people to confront one another in the building’s central atrium. Pixar producer Darla Anderson admits, “I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking into the bathroom and running into unexpected people that I do sitting at my desk.”

view of Pixar office

Susan Cain’s New York Times article from January 13th affirms this. “Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time.”

Space where people must engage, but on their own terms, leads to more creativity and innovative production. In other words, hanging out at the water cooler can be more a more effective use of work time than committee meetings. Laura Braunstein calls these “collision spaces.” She concludes that the university campus’ collision space is the library.

On Thursday, The Ubiquitous Librarian reminded us that we have more work to do to earn that title – and it should be ours. Brian Mathews quotes a design student who described the library’s front door as “a neutral non-place that tries hard to be invisible.” Last year, Mathews visited Virginia Tech’s TechPad and took away a number of great space planning ideas for libraries that want to foster collision spaces – moveable environments to adjust to needs and open spaces yet maintaining defined spaces.

Braunstein dismissed the common worry that libraries have no future. They are the ultimate hangout for innovation and discovery. Libraries will do well to realize their strength as collision spaces and focus efforts to redefine their environments to foster accidental meetings.