My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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my creative environment

Anil Dash asked folks to tell him about their work environments, about what the environment is like where they feel most creative. In a moment of procrastination, I responded and I thought I’d share. If you’re so inclined, I’d love to know what is on the other side of your computer. I do love to hear how people’s lives are organized.

Two weeks before I hunkered down to write my last mega treatise, all of my CDs were stolen from my car. I whimpered on a mailing list and this super kind guy burned off 200 of the ones I lost and sent them to me. That week, I also bought the new Son Kite album. I took the 201 CDs with me to the cottage where I hibernated. One small problem… the CD player in the house in the middle of the woods did not play burned CDs. So, for 10 days, I listened to one CD on repeat: Son Kite’s “Perspectives Of.”

Ever since then, whenever I hunker down to write something longer than a blog post, including all of my articles and most of my essays, I mostly ignore the other 10,000 songs in my iTunes and play Son Kite. On repeat. Every once in a while, I expand out a little bit.. some Dr. Toast here, bluetech there, a little Antix, Ticon and Vibrasphere. But it mostly comes back to Son Kite.

To separate serious writing from anything else (since I never leave my house), I switch to more organic sounds. Blog posts get a little jazz, a little downtempo. When I am emotional and need to just run around the house screaming as a coping mechanism for writing, I turn on Ani DiFranco. Anyone who has followed my Last.FM lately probably realizes that there’s been a lot of screaming.

As for environment, my living room (a.k.a. office) has been the same for years. Two fuzzy green couches with 5 separate sitting options. Legs up on fuzzy stool. Surrounded by 1200 books, organized obsessively by topics and catalogued in a database for easy locating… a dozen or so sitting on the couch beside me. Lots of plants, all organic colors, no TV or monitor of any kind. A big calming buddha statue that weighs over 200 pounds and a variety of paintings from friends and travels. Huge windows with lots of light streaming in and birds chirping outside. Candles for nighttime. Twelve different lights that can be combined in different ways in relation to my mood. No fluorescents, all incancesdents.. I love the environment, but lighting really affects my productivity. Most importantly, my cat Marbellio sits on my left side or above my head on the windowsill all day while I work.

I’ve transported this setup to four different apartments since 2002. I can’t work in offices or anywhere where the lighting is headache producing. I can’t work at desks. I’m not so good at working without books surrounding me or my cat purring next to me. Environment really really matters when it comes t me producing anything of value.

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14 comments to my creative environment

  • Bertil

    Incandescent?
    You Earth-hater! I’m sure you travel a lot too. . .

  • This reminds me of when I was writing my senior thesis. I listened to Explosions in the Sky’s “The Birth and Death of the Day” on repeat whenever I was working. Helps me work when I have the same music going all the time.

    Thanks for pointing me in the direction of Son Kite… had never heard of them. Great stuff.

  • joe

    remind me not to help you move (unless you move to priceton)

    🙂

  • ::laugh:: Don’t you worry – I learned long ago that I need to hire movers if I want to keep my friends. Even though I warn them of buddha and they tell me it’s no big deal, they complain non-stop when they actually have to move them. And the 30+ boxes of books just make them glare.

  • I hear you on the music thing… I have a playlist on my iPod called “Study Music.” It’s all music with a minimum of vocals, or if it does have lyrical content, it’s something I can blend into the background… so I have some Blue Man Group, a little jazz (a CD called Music to Look at Boxes By, which is music played before Penn and Teller’s magic show in Vegas), Delerium, Gregorian chant, some oonce-oonce techno, Enigma… and the soundtrack to Blade Runner.

    The kicker is, I discovered that when I sit down to start writing, I absolutely cannot get started unless I start with Blade Runner. I absolutely cannot. Starting with any other song on that list sees me shuffling papers, lining up books, tying my hair back justso, etc. etc… but if I start with Blade Runner, I actually buckle down and start getting things done. I’m not sure why that is.. it’s not even at the top of the playlist, but I guess I’ve just always started with it. Go figure.

    And if I’m writing a Serious Bidness Paper, I can’t do it on my couch. I can write little things like journal entries, reading summaries, that kind of stuff sitting on my couch or in my papasan chair, but when it comes to Real Live Papers, I have to be at a table of some sort. I learned *that* in New York when I started grad school, and all I had room for in my bedroom was my bed so it was my bed, chair, desk, table, everything. Can’t write papers there. Must have table with books, papers, etc. And my cat either sitting on my lap peering at the computer, or sitting across the table on the other chair eyeballing me and the computer. Well, *SHE* thinks she needs to be there. *I* think she needs to be on the couch asleep! 🙂

  • Greetings from Amishville, Lanc lanc (I’m MTHS class of ’07), whatever you want to call it as well as my new home Tempe, AZ Danah!

    Well, my creative work environment involves listening to Jazz (I know, it sounds generic) As well as Vegas Lounge. I work with a can of redbull and I’m always listening to talk radio while trying to build my site and picking up the programming language. Music, talk radio, caffeine, that’s my classic recipe. I’ve also got a full-size music keyboard right next to me for my ADHD tendencies to play a little tune in between writing/research. I’m also next to a very large window so I open my blinds to see the blue Arizona skies and palm trees, it presents a chaotic and calming environment. And, so I don’t miss any of that fall Amish country flair, I always have 2 apple-cinnamon scented candles lit. I have all my senses stimulated, and that’s basically what it takes for me to get my juices running. The rest just comes from the brain, out through the finger tips and on to the type pad!

  • mike lewis

    i found it interesting that when you went to describe your work environment, you spent the first 3 paragraphs talking about music. It shows how much music IS your environment. Some people might mention the view from their desk, the computer they work on, or the pen they use.

    It seems that music is increasingly becoming threaded into people’s lives. Whether this is due to iPods, the expansion of the quantity of music, or people’s need for more self-expression i think it’s great

    Personally, i love music and try to bring it with me everywhere i go but this wasn’t always the case. Working at 2 music companies back to back has introduced me to the large throbbing world of music. When i read the question i immediately thought of the actual tools i use (notepads and Mac) and the items i’m wearing – but that’s an entirely different post

  • This is awesome! Thanks for taking the time to write this up. 🙂 It is interesting how these kinds of conversations seem (to me at least) to reveal a lot about our personalities, as much as our working styles.

  • I need to have a big latte and some sort of sound– whether it be atmosphere chatting, or cinematic soundtracks (epic instrumental music from various movies – they tend to draw a bit more of an emotional connection from me). And the environment needs to be warm– warmer colors, maybe some wood paneling, books, a bit of a lived in feel– comforting, yet a place that isn’t “everyday” familiar.

    The Novel in Santa Monica is one of the best places I’ve come to find for writing – the greatest characters of all time walk in that place (currently my favorite is the man with the bird feathers stuck straight up in his hat).

    I can write in peace, and then when i need some sort of unique inspiration, I look around the room and enjoy the interesting social gathering.

  • Ben

    Bounding up to my office, cup of tea in hand (Earl Grey with honey ideally)………….

    Since I was a child my work environment has had to be cluttered, chaotic and treacherous to the unwary footfalls of others. I trace this back to making lego spaceships, whilst reading a book and listening to the TV in the background. The clutter seemed to fuel the free flowing association that is the grist of the mill to my creative process. Sound-scape is fundamental; a video of a show I’m catching up on, an audiobook leaching information into my vicinity, some tunes electrifying my spinal column or providing a soundtrack to entrance my mind and fingers. Books are the wall paper, like a thousand (or so) dinner guests waiting to make interesting conversation and a comforting taxonomy of the intellectual space I feel I (should)inhabit. A desk/table helps to hold important clutter items (glue, screwdrivers, leathermans, mobile phones, scanner/printer, pictures of the wife and kids). A guitar must be close at hand for serious work (as an ex-smoker I have to have a distracting addiction of some sort). Finally, and most importantly, an open moleskine plain notebook, a red biro and a fountain pen. Natural light is an optional extra, due to the many years of having a basement office. Two laptops (no additional screens, keyboards or mice) one Mac, one PC.

    The only permanent book on the desk is “Zen Computer” by the Late (and sorely missed) Phil Toshio Sudo

  • I’m loving the picture you’ve drawn …
    Music has never been that important to me; when I do have some on, I realise that I like it; but, well, I wouldn’t have 200 CDs for someone to steal!
    Books… yes; right now I’m in my study; a fairly, well, study like study .. couple of bookcases (not catalogued, but I do know where most of the books are – different ones in different rooms) (Study has part of the collection of Old School Stories & computer books), dining room has travel books etc. etc., I used to quite like to work in the sitting room – but on the couch with the laptop gives me backache …

    In the summer, I revel in being able to work in the garden – just wish that I could get wireless electricity as well as wireless internet!

  • Good looking incandescent lighting (specifically, GE Reveal) is very important to my work environment, too.

    What are we going to do when the sale of incandescents is banned in 2014?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banning_of_incandescent_lightbulbs#United_States

  • sophie

    Currently working on finishing my thesis-

    Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue’ and Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue’ only (& on repeat).

    I also can’t work at desks, so I work sitting on either of my two purple sofas. Love this setup – my back is not too happy about it, though.

    Hope your writing is going well.

  • M. Senn

    Dual monitor setup has revolutioned my life. I find I need constant distraction in order to keep my brain happy and productive. I used to pick up magazines, books, whatever, but they were TOO distracting and I was always behind on my work. Now I have one monitor dedicated to itunes, youtube, blogs, email, news, and one monitor with my real work crunching numbers. I can keep my brain happy by just glancing to my left, and I’m way more productive.

    When forced to work off a single monitor (usually a laptop with a tiny screen), I spend way too much time alt-tabbing, and get very little done.