A cup of cafe: why coffee shops are great for fostering creativity

A cup of cafe: why coffee shops are great for fostering creativity

(Facebook/Caffe Streets)

Consider space. This is something we don’t think about, not really. We consider it with our homes, but only to an extent. I think about it in other places like New York where you learn to live without private space. Public becomes the domain with room to breathe. I spent all day there away from what I temporarily called home. By the end, I had forgotten the longing of a room to call one’s own.

In Chicago, it is possible to find that room, to hold it tight for good and for always. A perfect coffee shop must perform a different duty. It must be more than a place for caffeinated drinks. It must be everything. If one already has private space, one can seek perfected public space.

Not every day will be the same, but there is something comforting in expecting little pleasures that compliment what you need to do. I noticed this during my last couple of work sessions at Caffe Streets. The upscale coffee shop is located in Wicker Park and includes, among other things, a beautiful and geographical wood ceiling, an eclectic mix of contemporary and older music, and some of the most delicious coffee and tea drinks to be found in the city.

For their 2012 Best of Chicago list, the Chicago Reader’s Tal Rosenberg wrote,

“There are few electrical outlets, which might deter some people, but sometimes it’s nice to go into a coffee shop where the patrons are looking at reality.”

And to me, that too is the appeal. Every coffee shop fulfills a different necessary role for its patrons, but what I love most about Caffe Streets is its ability to facilitate what is now an unusual coffee shop experience: the social one. People come here to work (much like I do), but they also come to just sit and talk and socialize. It is the socializing that is key.

When working on articles and essays for WBEZ and other publications, the background noise of other people socializing helps me write quickly and succinctly. My brain must refocus on the task at hand. Utter silence makes this difficult because it is too easy to let the mind wander to something distracting such as a book or Twitter. Unlike other coffee shops I have been to, the constant movement of bodies and noise they create (on most days) a perfect working environment.

Others seem to feel the same way, too. Very rarely is the space empty.

A study by researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne and published in the Journal of Consumer Research confirms this idea. According to the study:

a moderate (70 dB) versus low (50 dB) level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks and increases the buying likelihood of innovative products. A high level of noise (85 dB), on the other hand, hurts creativity. Process measures reveal that a moderate (vs. low) level of noise increases processing difficulty, inducing a higher construal level and thus promoting abstract processing, which subsequently leads to higher creativity. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing and thus impairs creativity.

As reported on and reiterated in the New York Times, “Pulling up a seat at your favorite coffee shop may be the most efficient way to write a paper or finish a work project.”

Another space I find fulfilling is Iguana Cafe, a European coffee house located in the River West neighborhood. Internet access at this cafe must be purchased and so I like to visit it when all of my research has been completed and my greatest concern is putting it all together. Unlike traditional coffee houses, Iguana features a wide array of food options, so many of its customers arrive with the sole purpose of socializing. The ensuing noise is one that puts me at ease creatively. If I am going to be the only one working here, then I must do my best work and do it now.

Each cafe provides something different, but they both contribute to the creative process. Why is coffee shop background noise so advantageous, but other noise is not? In coffee shops, despite the literal different people and conversations taking place, one can find concentration in the uniformity of noise. Voices and other sounds (the opening and closing of doors, the grind of a drink being prepared) blend together to equal something familiar yet not. The coffee shop is a social space, an environment of communication. The conversations are robust and constant and welcomed. The act of being in this place of words feels better than wherever I was before.