Bambi George couldn’t have been happier when her company moved out of their small, sterile office into a larger building.
The previous headquarters of Valorem – a technology company based in Kansas City, Missouri – barely had any natural lighting and the walls were a stale grey. The new premises could not be more different. Its walls are covered in vibrant greens, yellows and blues, while natural light now filters into much of the space.
While it’s a more inviting place to work, George also thinks it’s made for a more creative and productive office. “It’s not only because of the space, but our people are coming with all sorts of crazy and innovative ideas,” says George, the company’s senior vice-president of operations.
There is a growing body of research that suggests lighting, wall colour and even the height of the ceilings can have a big impact on the way we think
The idea that a simple relocation has got Valorem’s employees’ creative juices flowing is not as far fetched as it might first seem. There is a growing body of research that suggests lighting, wall colour and even the height of the ceilings can have a big impact on the way we think. While cramped, open-plan offices may be an inexpensive way for companies to get more people in less space, these workspaces can sap our creativity.
“The office was designed for a manufacturing mindset, but most of the work we’re doing is knowledge work that values innovation and creativity,” says Kay Sargent, director of workplace at HOK, a global design firm. “People need to feel secure and comfortable so they can be free to be innovative and creative.” If those needs aren’t met, creativity can suffer, Sargent says.
Well-designed workplaces often create environments that make their employees better thinkers, often without even realising they have done it. But some are now actively turning to the science to help free their workers’ minds.
One of the easiest ways to inspire creativity is to put the right coat of paint on our office walls, says environmental design psychologist Sally Augustin. Her Illinois-based company, Design with Science, helps businesses incorporate the research into their office spaces.
While there will be some effect from personal preference, green has been directly linked to creativity. Other bright colours, such as light blues and yellows can also increase creativity too.
Calmer colours are less stimulating than more saturated ones, so they distract us less from the task at hand
There may be two reasons for this effect, says Augustin. First, calmer colours, such as greens and blues, are less stimulating than more saturated ones, like red, so they distract us less from the task at hand. Green also reminds us of nature, which may help us to relax, she claims.
If there’s one colour to avoid, it’s red. While it can give us a burst of energy, it has been linked to degraded analytical performance and more aggressive feelings.
Lighting is also critical to fostering creativity, says Augustin. Getting the right balance has been shown to be crucial to maintaining the right mood within the workplace. Too dark and workers can feel drowsy, while if it is too bright, it can make them feel anxious. Experts recommend the ideal level of brightness in an office to be around 500 lux – a measure of light similar to sunrise on a clear day.
The best kind of illumination, however, is natural light, says Augustin. It has been shown to improve our mood, helps us sleep better and makes us more productive. But to get the best out of natural sunlight, it needs something more.
“If you have access to natural daylight but you’re staring at brick wall, then that won’t work,” warns Sargent. “These things are combined – you want the light, but you also want to see greenery, water and wood. These things have a positive impact on almost everybody.”
If we need to concentrate or to think analytically, a bluer light is better
When it comes to artificial lighting, warmth and colours matter, says Augustin. In more collaborative workspaces, where we need to think creatively, she claims a warmish colour is ideal. If we need to concentrate or to think analytically, a bluer light is better.
Another study from Cornell University showed that using focused, indirect uplighting had a greater impact on the satisfaction and productivity of office workers than the wide, parabolic downlights that are typically found in most open plan workplaces.
Get some headspace
Perhaps most surprisingly, the amount of space above your head could affect how you think. A study from 2007 looked at how ceiling heights impact people’s mental processes, and found that higher ceilings result in more creative thinking, while lower ceilings help people complete more hands-on tasks.
When a person is in a space with a 10-foot ceiling, they will tend to think more freely, more abstractly
“Ceiling heights bring different kinds of concepts or thoughts to mind,” says Joan Meyers-Levy, author of the study. “Those concepts then influence the actual way that you process information.”
“If a ceiling is high it activates the idea of freedom, or the lack of boundaries,” she says. “When you experience low ceiling height you activate concepts of constriction or confinement.”
It’s not a new area of research. The stduy mentions the 1966 work of Edward Hall, who applied this theory to places of worship. He noted that “chapels, which are small and contained, are likely to convey the notion of confinement or restrictedness, whereas awe-inspiring cathedrals are reminiscent of the freedom and openness of the cosmos.”
Putting it into practice
Incorporating all of these hidden design elements means developing a variety of spaces in an office, so staff can find privacy if needed, but also work in areas for creative and analytical thinking, says Sargent.
For instance, a company might want to have one room with high ceilings where more creative work can get done and other room with lower ones where more hands-on tasks can get completed, she says.
At Valorem there are indeed different rooms for different kinds of work activities. While they haven’t gone as far as creating spots with different ceiling heights, some rooms have been designed as collaborative spaces and others for more concentrated work. Some have different colours on the walls to evoke different moods, says George.
Of course, office space isn’t the only contributor to creativity – our colleagues, bosses and passion for our work all factor in as well. But our surroundings can give us a creative boost. For those who work in dreary spaces, adding plants to a cubicle or colourful photos on a desk can help get the juices flowing, says Sargent.
“It’s about creating a variety of spaces,” says Sargent. “We want to create environments that maximise the potential to be successful.”
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.