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CW Bulletin is the e-newsletter supplement to CW magazine. Sent each month to all members, every issue of CW Bulletin presents articles, case studies and additional resources on timely topics in communication.

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Creative Environments and the Lone Practitioner

by Cathy Austin

Beginning in the 1990s and early 2000s, offices the world over began to stock up on ping pong and foosball tables, introduced any number of toys and other inspirational (or is it diversional?) accoutrements to the office environment, and took down walls to create spaces that invited collaboration and interaction. Teams would go on exploratory field trips, hear motivational speakers and drink copious amounts of company-provided caffeine. All in the name of fueling creativity, both a trait and an outcome now rightfully recognized as the engine behind virtually any successful professional output. At last, creativity isn’t just for “creatives” anymore.

And certainly, many a brilliant idea has emanated from these highly charged creative environments.

But what of the lone practitioner—the man or woman who, like millions of others in a much-changed professional landscape, now works largely alone, either as a small business owner, freelancer/consultant, telecommuter or as part of an increasingly common virtual workforce?

I head up one of those virtual workplaces, a collection of talented and highly creative marketing professionals who work in dedicated home offices, small commercial spaces and, occasionally, at a nearby Starbucks. Client expectations of our work product are no different than if we worked in large agencies with all the above-cited influences. In fact, high levels of creativity are the object of our professional existence. We are connected by the usual channels of communication—email, phone, Skype, chat, social media. But we are, daily and often for hours on end, alone.

Where does creativity come from when we have only ourselves and perhaps our social media friends to talk to, banter with and bounce ideas off of? What kind of environment can an individual create to feed their own creativity, spark clever or even revolutionary ideas, and set ourselves merrily on the way to solving the next business or client challenge?

Anyone who has worked in a lone environment (and I have for a significant portion of my more than 25-year career) will let you in on what really isn’t a secret to those who’ve lived it or studied the sources of creativity: People tend to be more creative when left to their own solitary, non-interrupted devices. Susan Cain of The New York Times wrote a piece last year on the misconceptions of “groupthink” and its false premise that collaboration is the necessary root of all things creative. She cites Picasso in her article, who said, “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”

Still, sustaining creativity in a lone work environment, even for those accustomed to its challenges and opportunities, requires self-awareness, discipline and, frankly, a willingness to grant yourself permission to wander at times.

Perhaps it isn’t just having other people nearby or groovy work environments that are the genesis of creative brilliance, but even Newton, Picasso and generations of writers, philosophers, technology developers, urban planners and association administrators need sources of inspiration and spaces that enable them to bring forth their best.

Unfettered curiosity
Regardless of where or how we work, the best creative minds are and will always be, quite simply, the most curious. Auntie Mame implored young Patrick to avoid dullness by “soaking up life, down to your toes.” I’ve long appreciated the chirpy reminder that the more we seek, the more we find and have to give in return. Applying this same inspirational logic to the business of creativity: the more input, the greater the output.

In a home or small office, that pursuit can often be easier than in a traditional work environment. Office obligations cast aside, we now have time to dedicate to exploration. Interruptions curtailed, we can spend a couple of hours at a museum exhibit, go out for a head-clearing walk or sit with a stack of books and a notepad.

My most creative friends and colleagues are voracious explorers. Halle von Kessler, a professional hybrid—marketer, stylist, photographer and event planner—pours through hundreds of magazines, books, websites and sample books every week. From her home-based office in Baltimore, she’ll also pop down to visit The Washington Design Center every so often for inspiration. Colleague and user experience designer Mark Maloney is in constant “input mode,” always reading (science is a particular passion) and suggests that even Facebook is a constant source of ideas, as he finds useful the vastly different perspectives of his eclectic mix of friends.

To Maloney and others, social media is much more than its time-sucker reputation would allow. “What is idle banter for some is planting seeds of ideas for me,” says Chris Larsen, a writer and columnist in Southern Pines, North Carolina. “I’ve often found Facebook helpful in developing ideas for columns,” he confesses.

The logistics of creativity
“Toys on your desk don’t make you creative,” says Maloney, who worked in some of the Washington D.C./Baltimore-area’s most highly regarded creative shops before setting out on his own. Environment matters, however—in how it enables us to clear our minds and provides easily accessible brain food.

A dedicated workspace is critical. A place with your stuff where your brain can wander and engage in serious thought.

Controlled clutter can be good for creativity, chaos is most certainly not. Small spaces can quickly run amuck. Surround yourself with the things you need to inspire you. Find someplace else for the rest.

Embrace the solitude—and the freedom. Don’t hesitate to shut out the world when you need to focus—not so easy in a big office, much more feasible on your own. Use the flexibility of fewer political obligations and the ability to manage your own time to take yourself on the occasional field trip or spend head-clearing time on the treadmill.

To wit, if my colleagues are any indication, exercise may well have replaced the shower as the number one place for idea generation.

A potential pitfall of working as a sole practitioner can be a lack of critical input. Ideas need sounding boards. Skype a colleague for a sanity check. Post a beta project on social media and solicit input. Dribbble.com is a terrific online portal for graphic designers and developers looking for constructive feedback. Working alone does not mean you have to work in a vacuum.

Make time, too, for face-to-face interaction. A dining table, borrowed conference room, rented executive suite, that nearby Starbucks all can be suitable for brainstorming and conceptual sessions.

We can be at our creative best working alone. With the right tools, the right environment and, most important, the right mind-set. Energize your brain with exploration—then who needs ping pong?


Cathy Austin is president of Loop9 Marketing, an agency collaborative that specializes in brand development and evolution. Based in Falls Church, Virginia, Cathy’s virtual team engages from Virginia, Washington, DC, Maryland, New Mexico and Arizona.