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Creativity & Ergonomics

  • 5 min read

Ergonomics and the artist

A treasured pen. A carefully adjusted easel. A favourite chair. A room of one’s own.

The importance of the connection between an artist, their tools, and their environment has long been understood, even looking back to a time when little consideration was paid to physical wellbeing in other professions.

Instinctively it seems, creative individuals have sought to optimise their comfort and their ability to focus, long before ‘ergonomics’ came into being. Perhaps because the creative state is often regarded as fragile and elusive, close attention has been paid to the external factors that might support or hinder it. There is plenty of evidence of our collective and perpetual fascination with the preferences and processes of our great artists, which are often pored over and mythologised.

The understanding that physical, psychological, behavioural and environmental factors impact productivity and wellbeing might have become mainstream in recent decades - but look back a little further and perhaps we have artists and writers to thank – you might even argue they were the ergonomics pioneers!

Favourite tools, preferred postures

From a carpenter’s well-worn hammer to a trusty old laptop, the favourite tool is a familiar concept. We all self-select what is most comfortable from the options available to us, and when something feels just right, and brings pleasure and satisfaction in its use, you could describe it as ‘ergonomic’.

That might seem an unusual word to apply to the tiny table at Jane Austen’s Hampshire home on which she placed her sloping writer’s desk, or the tired old wingback chair in Roald Dahl’s famous writing shed, complete with the hole he cut in it to ease his back pain from an old war injury, and the writing board he placed over his knees.

These, and many of the other artists’ preferred set-ups, might not look comfortable to most people. They certainly wouldn’t qualify as ‘ergonomically designed’! However, it’s worth remembering that even a fixed chair can be right for some individuals, especially if the sitter is regularly changing posture, getting up and moving about. Perhaps that’s why long walks and pacing about the room are also activities we associate with artists, writers and thinkers?

American journalist and novelist Mary Heaton Vorse famously said that “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair”, but there are many for whom that wasn’t the case. Ernest Hemmingway, Winston Churchill, Lewis Carroll, and Charles Dickens all reportedly preferred to write standing up. Marcel Proust wrote lying down in his famous brass bed, and Truman Capote described himself as a “completely horizontal author.”

From shifting postures to customising chairs and desks, writers have long been known for experimenting with tools and spaces to find what is comfortable and conducive to good work.

A room of one’s own? Finding the right creative environment.

Virginia Woolf concluded that a woman must have money and a room of her own to write. But JK Rowling had neither, famously penning the first of her blockbuster Harry Potter series in an Edinburgh café. The fact that both these details are common knowledge again points to the attention paid, both by artists and those around them, to the environments in which they choose to create their work.

While, for some, silence and solitude are prerequisites for creativity, there are also those who crave the presence if not the company of others, perhaps seeking out a café, a library, a museum, or even a train.

The desire to be ‘alone together’, like toddlers playing companionably alongside, but not with each other, is a preferred practice we’re becoming more aware of in the contemporary world of work. We’re seeing some people forgo homeworking and returning to the office because they find themselves more content, even more productive, with other warm bodies in the room – even if a quick hello is the only interaction which passes between them.

Artists and writers have also been known for incorporating natural elements into their workspaces to promote creativity and wellbeing. Virginia Woolf, for example, chose Monk’s House, her home in East Sussex, for its garden and, for 22 years, wrote most of her novels in the writing lodge tucked into the corner of the orchard. It was also an important source of inspiration and solace for her in periods of illness and depression.

For painters, natural light is most commonly the essential component of their work. Artists’ studios are invariably flooded with light, and some opt to abandon four walls altogether, preferring to paint en plein air.

These include French Impressionist painter Claude Monet, whose beautiful garden at his home in Giverny, France became the source of inspiration for many of his most famous paintings.

The close association between so many writers and artists and where they chose to work again points to their seemingly innate understanding that, to work effectively, the environment around you matters enormously.

Learning from the masters?

So, what can we take from all these luminaries about how we can optimise ergonomics to boost creativity?

In truth, not all that much. Ask 1000 writers and painters about how they work best, and you will probably get 1000 different answers. What works for one, won’t necessarily work for another, because the creative process is truly individual; just as in ergonomics, one size doesn’t fit all.

While a ramshackle chair or a quirky old typewriter might have been the best choice in the past, contemporary creatives at least can benefit from modern ergonomics. In the long-running Guardian series Writers’ Rooms, writer Sarah Waters even advised aspiring authors “Make sure your desk and chair are set-up properly! Don’t get RSI!”

When the discomfort and pain which may result from ill-fitting tools and furniture and awkward postures threatens to undermine your creativity, finding a comfortable work set-upset-up is key. Here are some good rules of thumb.

  1. Get a comfortable work set-up. If you’re at a desk working on a screen, ensure the seat, desktop and screen are at the correct heights for you, and a separate keyboard and mouse are essential.
  2. When painting or drawing, invest in an adjustable easel or drafting table or drawing board, with a height-adjustable stool. Saddle stools on wheels where you have the option to sit, stand or perch are a good option.
  3. Get moving – moving from sitting to standing for some tasks and taking regular breaks to walk and move can help protect the body and give the mind a rest.
  4. Tap into biophilia – invest in plants, even fake ones, murals or large photos of natural scenes. Pick colours, textures and materials from nature. Choose spaces with plenty of natural light and ideally views out onto something green. And when you can, get to a park, into the woods or your garden for a walk.

The fact is, even with the perfect set-up, you can never guarantee inspiration will strike. But by creating a comfortable and energising environment, you can at least be sure that you’ll be ready to seize it if it does.

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