Starbucks and Creativity

June 30, 2008

This afternoon, my iPhone buzzed me to reveal a Twitter message from an old friend, Michael Staires. Mike is the Director of Communications and Marketing for the Christian Camp and Conference Association in Colorado Springs. The very nature of his job requires constant creative thinking, so I always enjoy his thoughts on marketing and “thinking different.” His Twitter message:

What is it about “third places” like Starbucks that fuels creativity?

What a great question! In fact, once I started thinking about it I realized it was far too great to respond in a couple of sentences. I’ve wondered the same thing many times, but never took the time to really consider it.

Why do so many people leave their homes and offices to set up camp in a Starbucks (or other similar setting) to knock out a blog post, revise a poem, or finish a big paper or presentation? Is it something in the brew? The atmosphere? Or is it all in our minds?

I think the answer is a house blend of all the above. My experience is that creativity benefits from a change in environment, and I hypothesize that it has to do with the way our brain works and processes information from our sensory perception.

In familiar settings, such as our homes and offices, I believe our brains have a natural tendency to “tune-out” or attenuate signals from our senses, such as the things we see, hear, smell, feel, and even taste. Those senses are incredibly valuable to us for the innate purposes of survival. Medical and behavioral research has shown that when we are faced with threatening, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar situations, several things happen to our bodies without us even realizing it. Our eyelids open wider, our nostrils flare a little, and we tend to cock our heads at slightly different angles. Our bodies, of course, are making adjustments to optimize our senses of sight, smell, and hearing. (This behavior also explains the quite predictable changes in body language known by investigators and law enforcement for years.)

When removed from a familiar environment, our brains are more sensitive to external stimuli when compared to a known setting. It’s as if our brains are saying, “There’s nothing new here to be aware of or worry about, so I’m gonna take the next hour or so off” when sitting at the same old desk in the same old office.

Take that same brain somewhere else, however, and the game changes. Look at Mike’s situation as an example: He’s wearing the same clothes and using the same laptop, but his sensory system is several times more aware of EVERYTHING else. Compared to his office, that leather lounge chair feels different, the temperature of the room may be slightly warmer, the music may be something he’s never heard (with different acoustics), the lighting is more dim, and the smells of the coffees and espressos undoubtedly insist themselves on his olfactory nerve.

More subtle, yet perhaps more significant, is the brain’s inclination to “create under pressure.” We’ve all heard the expressions: “Necessity is the mother of invention,” “I work best under pressure,” and “Maybe this will light a fire under him.” They are all really saying the same thing. We have acquired an understanding that our minds and bodies can fabricate solutions to complex problems when said solutions become critical. The key ingredient is focus.

While firing up a laptop over a Grande Arabian Mocha Sanani doesn’t amount to much of a pressure cooker, I think the change of scenery does allow us to capitalize on the brain’s increased sensitivity and focus.

My guess is that these behaviors have important implications for the creative process.

The brain’s tendency toward increased situational awareness has the side effect of introducing all kinds of “new ideas.” A writer may be inspired by the intimate conversation of a couple at a nearby table or the lyrics of a song. A graphic designer might be sparked by the pattern and color of the floor tile next to the polished, curved wood and aluminum of the bar. The brain then leverages its enhanced sense of focus increase its chances of synthesizing any newfound inspiration into an idea.

That said, I think we can help spark creativity in myriad ways, Baristas not included. Often times at work, I’ll take my laptop to the board room or outside to the courtyard to work on a project when I seem to be mired in the same repetitive thoughts. At home, the patio in the backyard under the magnolia tree works just as well. Stuck in the office? Try turning off your overhead lights, use a desk lamp, and tune to an Internet radio station that plays music from eastern Europe or Latin America. Ponca City High School in northern Oklahoma installed a coffee bar in the school cafeteria a few years ago. Teachers quickly found that they have more engaging class discussions and sharper feedback when they add comfy chairs and iced lattes to the lesson plans on occasion.

What ways do YOU help along the creative process? Are there certain personality types that benefit more from environmental change than others when it comes to creative thinking?

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Yesterday’s announcement by CEO Steve Jobs of the company’s iPhone somehow managed to live up the hype preceding its release. This is remarkable, considering the fever pitch of rumors and speculation about its features, pricing, and “Cool Factor” so rampant over the past several months. Apple needed to knock the world off its collective feet with the device to avoid a denouement of a product announcement, and they delivered. The announced feature set is already well-traveled on the Internet, so the focus of this column will turn to the exciting road ahead for Apple, the iPhone, and its soon to be users.

First, let’s address the foundation of the device, which provides some guidance in determining what can realistically be done. While Apple has not (to my knowledge) announced the processor architecture of the iPhone, we do know it runs on a modified version of Apple’s desktop and server platform, OS X. Kinda UNIX and BSD under the hood, and the heavyweight champion of the world in user interface, OS X is a mature platform that has proven scalability and reliability. Just how close the iPhone’s version is (at the core) to the desktop version remains to be seen, but it presents to awesomely intriguing possibilities for software development. Apple is set to release DashCode, its so-easy-to-use-even-your-mom-can-do-it custom widget builder with its next desktop release (code named Leopard) sometime this year. It’s no stretch at all to imagine DashCode bundled with the iPhone so users can customize their mobile experience like NEVER before. And as long as the core of OS X is there, how hard can it be for developers to give us other third party apps? How cool would a remote desktop client or a Keynote/PowerPoint player be? Google Earth iPhone Edition?

Another clue Apple gave us is the integration of Google Maps. Complete with directions and satellite imagery, it’ll make for a sweet addition to the iPhone as it is. But why stop there? My HP iPAQ 6515 has a built-in GPS receiver, and it’s over a year old. The iPhone begs for a Google Maps/GPS integration that not only shows you where your destination is, but tells you how to get there–even if you don’t know where you are.

Finally (for now), Jobs noted in his presentation that voice is the killer app. for this market. More than just stating the obvious, he was making the point that voice conversations are the market driver for this sector, and that devices should make the experience simple, even elegant. So what about a voice interface that senses the switch from GSM/EDGE to Wi-Fi, and routes the calls on the Internet using a SIP interface. This could be transparent to the user, with the exception of a possible visual indicator on the iPhone so the user knows not to walk out and hop on a bus in the middle of such a call. A big-league feature this would be for users, especially businesses and other organizations paying for multiple wireless voice plans.

At first glance such a feature would seem like a horrible deal for Cingular, the iPhone’s lone carrier. But let’s not forget Cingular’s place as an elder sibling in the larger AT&T family. Yeah, the same AT&T that offers CallVantage broadband voice service. All the components are out there, waiting for convergence, and the advantages aren’t just in cost savings. Wi-Fi in many homes and offices far exceeds the signal strength of Cingular wireless connections, so a carefully executed implementation on this front could result a more satisfied AT&T and Apple customer. No one has to lose.

It’s important to note that the demonstrations we’ve seen of the iPhone show a curiously odd “empty space” available for more applications on the Home screen, so its rather riskless to anticipate even more features announced by the secretive Apple empire before the iPhone’s availability in June. I can’t wait to get my hands on one, and will be watching for any further feature announcements like a hawk in the meantime.

Delicious Library

April 1, 2006


I work with computers and software every day. It’s in fact how I pay the bills. So as much as I’ve seen over the years, it’s not easy for me to be blown away by code, no matter how Cocoa-licious. Thus, it is with great fanfare that I annouce that an impressive gust from a company called The Omni Group has officially knocked me on my butt with a little $40 program for Mac OS called Delicious Library.

I stumbled across a demo download link on apple.com, and something just sort of drew me in. The program is designed to be a personal media cataloging and management database, which probably explains my initial interest (I tried to create something MUCH less sophisiticated yet similar in intent a few years ago to catalog my wife’s extensive collection of books). What KEPT my attention was the interface and design. This little 11 MB download installs in something like a nanosecond, and it was ready for work three nanoseconds later. Open the software, and you see a nice, little wood bookshelf on your screen waiting patiently for your media. Here’s how easy this software is to use:

1. Turn on your iSight camera.

2. Hold a book, dvd, vhs tape, cd, computer game, etc. up to the camera to show it the ISBN barcode, and wait for the program to give you a soft beep telling you it read the code.

3. Wait a couple of seconds while the software cross-references the ISBN number across several free Internet databases for a match, and then reads you the title of the item through your speakers and places a photographic image of the item on your little bookshelf.

Yeah… it’s really that simple. I didn’t leave anything out.

Not only does it reference the title for you and retrieve an image of the item, but it also retrieves a brief abstract, publication data, reviews and ratings from Amazon.com, and even original pricing and current values. Searching for items is almost fun, as the bookshlf magically updates right before your eyes as you type into the search bar. The software if also full integrated with Spotlight, allowing you to query the Library from the desktop. A Dashboard widget makes quick work of finding titles as well.

Want even more power? A bluetooth barcode scanner ($175) is available from the software’s web site (http://www.delicious-monster.com) for wireless scanning faster than the employee of the month at Wal-Mart. I’m curious to see if I can get the software to share its database across a network, and whether the performace drags after a few hundred titles. I’ll post an update later with my findings.

I’m buying a license as soon as I post this blog, and those of you local to the Bartlesville area feel free to come check it out for yourself on my computer. For those of you Windows users, Delicious Library requires Mac OSX, version 10.3 or greater. Despite this, it’s big-time software, kids.


Honestly, I have no idea where this is going. I do, however, strongly believe that I have a professional obligation as a technology coordinator for an Oklahoma educational cooperative to familiarize myself with–and stay abreast of–emerging technologies. This especially applies to technologies that stand to potentially impact learning.

Hence, I’ve decided to “operate on myself” a bit and experiment with blogging. Now, make no mistake: It’s not like this is a new phenomenon to me. I’ve carefully watched blogging evolve over the past few years into the almost mainstream medium that it is today. That said, here are some expectations for the poor saps who find themselves perusing my dribble:

What you will NOT find here:

Hyper-philosphical ramblings on such topics as existentialism and the meaning of life. First, there seems to be plenty enough of that going around already. Second, I don’t even begin to presume to offer any unique insight on such matters that have already been horse-whipped by many of the greatest minds throughout history. Finally, you don’t care. You really don’t. Be honest now. I’m a thirty-something, middle class, boring geek from Oklahoma. I’m passionate about learning, the future generations of our world, photography, and most importantly my family. I figure to have enough of a challenge keeping you interested as it is.

Political stump-speaking of any kind. I’m not real keen on politics, politicians, political promises, etc. Let’s just say I’m fairly convinced that both major political parties in the United States are corrupt, and nearly every elected official, no matter how idealistic in the beginning, manages to fall victim to the “monster” that is our nations’s political machine. Plenty of other left and right wing blog-spaces exist for those of who need that sort of fix. Bear in mind that I might address a politically-charged topic on occasion, but my motivation in such cases will surely have nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans.

A manifesto of any kind. I don’t think this requires any explanation.

What you WILL find here:

An attempt at humor. My experience is that people laugh at me on occasion, so despite my dear wife’s insistance to the contrary, I think I have a decent sense of humor. Don’t worry, she loves me anyway.

Honesty. I don’t see the point in wasting my time or yours on the converse.

Better content than what you’ve just read, I promise. I can’t believe you’re still with me. Good God! You must be incredibly bored.

Please let me know what you think, and send me links to the blogspheres of your own. I’m sure I’ve much to learn from you.

Joshua