Work Out Your Brain: Creativity Gyms

Creativity needs to stop being seen as an impalpable gift and start being seen
 as a skill like analytical thinking or time management – one that can be improved and developed. However, there is no “creativity potion” a person can take; instead, creativity requires an environment conducive to cognitive dissonance and curiosity, in which creativity is allowed to bubble to the top. One way to create such an environment is the creativity gym: a space to train one’s creativity, and/or an environment to optimize one’s creative flow.

We spoke to three key stakeholders about their version of the creativity gym: Grace Hawthorne (Adjunct Professor at Stanford, Stephan Kardos (Founder of The Creativity Gym), and Will Burns (CEO of Ideasicle and Forbes contributor). Our conversations show how the creativity gym is gaining popularity across educational institutions and communities, as well as how new experiences and expectations for white-collar workers to exercise their minds, intellect, and creativity are emerging.


Hawthorne teaches a Creative Gym class at Stanford’s to help build students’ creative confidence
 and sharpen their design thinking skills. The class offers personal skill-based creativity exercises to truly nourish creativity at an individual level. Hawthorne’s role as a facilitator parallels that of a personal trainer at a gym: both provide real-time and personalized coaching 
on targeted exercises to build optimal minds and bodies. If there isn’t a one-size-fits-all guide to getting physically fit, there certainly isn’t one for building creativity.

Build Your Mental Core

Creativity is not just acquired knowledge, like riding a bicycle. Your mind is a muscle that can be trained – and your creativity, as a function of your mind, has the same capacity. As Hawthorne explained, “You need a strong mental core no matter what industry your playground is in. I can increase my creative capacity and surpass yours, if you stop working at it.”

Hawthorne is also the founder of Paper Punk, a company that produces innovative paper-based building toys intended for children and adults. Paper Punk toys allow users to
 build their mental cores through the act of playing by making. In Hawthorne’s mind, the characteristics of play – the opportunity for interaction, spontaneity, discovery, and reactivity – nurture creativity. Her Creative Gym class and Paper Punk products both use such characteristics to train people’s minds, but they do so in divergent ways and for different audiences. Yet both succeed in fostering curiosity and increasing people’s capacity for creative thought.


The Creativity Gym, led by founder Stephan Kardos, emerged from OpenIDEO’s Creative Confidence challenge, where participants were asked to think of ways to stay creatively confident throughout their lives. Kardos’s team became fascinated with the idea of working out your brain, leading them to establish the Creativity Gym in Vienna as a side project. The Creativity Gym offers free monthly 
workout sessions with exercises targeted at helping people rediscover their creative capacities, skills, and tools. The organization aims to generate a creative community while providing community service. As the gym grew in popularity, Kardos began to experiment with other workout formats, such as Creative Prisms, a speaker series composed 
of individuals who succeed and thrive by living a creative lifestyle. Kardos believes that a creative lifestyle is different than a creative profession, and he strives to prove that
 any white-collar professional or student can and should have creative confidence. “I believe that creativity is an innate
 skill that just requires training,” he remarked.

Accessibility of Creativity

Kardos’s creativity gym addresses misconceptions around creativity, challenging the notion that only talented creative professionals (e.g. artists, musicians, dancers, etc.) can exercise creativity. This outdated paradigm leads people to believe that creativity, as a skill, is not accessible to them. However, elusive “soft” skills like creativity are essential when tackling novel and complex problems in any field. The facilitated workout provided by The Creativity Gym in Vienna is completely accessible to everyone in the community, and the program has a strong impact on anyone looking to explore their own creative capacities. This access is the first step in creating a class of workers from all fields who feel confident about their own creativity and recognize a responsibility to demonstrate creativity on a daily basis.


Burns’s dream, as explained in his 2017 Forbes article, 
“We Need a Creativity Gym to Expand our Minds, Not Our Bodies,” is a self-directed space that facilitates a creative experience. This idea came to life after Burns realized that while we all have spaces to socialize, focus, and co-work, there is no space people can go to foster and stimulate their creativity. His ultimate vision to fill this gap is a building 
with various rooms offering experiences that have been shown by scientific studies to enhance and prime minds for creativity. Some examples of the rooms include a prescriptive bar where people are given the optimal amount of alcohol
 for creativity (detailed by Jarosz, Colflesh, and Wiley in a 2012 study in Consciousness and Cognition), menial tasks rooms where creativity is heightened via the distraction of working memory (a phenomenon explored by Christoff, Gordon, Smallwood, Smith, and Schooler in a 2009 article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), or a walking room filled with treadmills (as walking improves creativity by 60%, according to a 2014 study by Oppezzo and Schwartz for Stanford University). As more research studies on creativity are conducted and rooms are iterated upon, the experiences offered in the space could become increasingly targeted and effective. Moreover, the space’s target audience would be workers who are professionally dependent on their creativity (e.g. advertising agency workers, designers, photographers, etc.) and looking for a competitive edge. Users would pay a set membership fee, which would allow them 24/7 access to this space. In this way, the business model would be similar to the model employed by the co-working space giant, WeWork.

Free Play

Burns’s vision of the creativity gym’s future is based on his belief that creativity is an innate skill that everyone possesses. “I think every person on Earth is creative, and that’s what makes us human,” he reflects. His vision for the space also parallels children during free play, offering an interesting perspective on creativity. The freeing and self-directed environment of this gym would enable adults to reconnect with their innate imagination and creative capacities, in 
their own world and at their own pace, and the experiences provided by the space would allow users to take their 
ideas and iteratively manipulate them across different contexts. This mimics how children create detailed and massive alternative worlds in their heads when playing with their toys – a process often discouraged or hindered as they grow up.


Creativity gyms offer a glimpse at the remarkable potential of developing a creative and innovative future. For these initiatives to succeed, two key ideas must be accepted:

1/  Creativity will be a foundational capability of the labor force in the future. The World Economic Forum predicts that creativity will be one of the most in-demand skills by 2020. Creativity is a capability that cannot be replicated by machines or algorithms: it is profoundly human. People who are professionally dependent on their creativity 
will be the first users of creativity gyms; however, for everyone to be engaged, we must all accept that creativity is a practicable and highly demanded skill in the market.

2/  Creativity is not synonymous with talent. Even people 
in the most technical roles, like programmers, use logic-based creativity to solve complex and open-ended problems. Creativity gyms are a call to action for everyone – not just professional creative workers.

In the future, creativity gyms could be just as common as fitness gyms, providing visitors with a continuous stream of new and innovative experiences. With wider adoption, creativity gyms could also offer cross-creativity experiences, where seasoned creative professionals, creative trainers, or improvisation agents come together to share and co-create new creative processes. A ballet dancer could collaborate with an improv jazz musician, or a programmer could share and engage with a contemporary artist. These cross-creativity experiences could take the form of coffee chats, design challenges, or just simply mutual creation, offering a rich source of inspiration from a wide variety of disciplines, processes, and ideas.

The creative process is never truly over – creativity gyms can provide the perfect environment for the constant and endless stream of new ideas, services, and experiences that lie at the core of innovation.

the author

Anita Lin

Anita Lin is an innovation analyst at Idea Couture.