top of page

Dr. Alison Williams


Univresity of East London




Creative workplace; creative footprint; visuo-spatial grammar; affordances

Thesis Title

A Grammar of Creative Workplaces


This study proposes a grammar of creative workplaces which identifies and codifies those elements of the physical environment that are reported to actively stimulate and sustain creativity in the workplace. The grammar is explicit rather than metaphorical or taxonomic. It emerges from and is applied into workplaces, predominantly office environments. Three elements, meaning, lexis, and syntax, central to the structure of linguistic and non-linguistic grammars, are proposed as the grammar’s method and as its content. Respondents in the research study identified the creative behaviours that stimulate and sustain their creativity, and the discrete physical elements that influence and support (and can hinder) those activities. It is suggested that those creative behaviours and the discrete elements of physical space are congruent with the three key grammatical elements.
The grammar addresses that gap in knowledge in the fields of architecture, design and psychology where the impact of the physical environment on people’s creativity in the workplace is acknowledged, but is without mediating structures of theory or implementation.
The grammar is presented in two forms. Firstly as a detailed instrument for assessing a workplace’s capacity to support user creativity, and secondly as the theoretical foundation of a generative grammar for the design of creativity-supporting workplaces. As an assessment instrument the grammar sets out in depth the places needed for users’ creative behaviour, six meta-categories of workplace sensory properties reported to enhance user creativity, the affordances or materials and equipment needed to support creative behaviours, and the behaviours themselves that lead to creative outcomes.
In its generative form the grammar uses these identified elements of place, properties, affordances and behaviours in an IF→THEN configuration. Place, properties and affordances form the grammar’s lexis, and behaviours is its syntax. This generative form creates the basis from which spaces with optimum creative potential can be designed.
The grammar in both its forms thus aims to inform and supplement existing good practice in which architects and designers use their experience or intuition to design for optimal user creativity. In its assessment form it aims to empower workplace users to audit their own workplaces and identify changes they might make to increase creative potential.
Configurations of visual language encompass both patterns and grammars and this thesis draws on work done by, among many others, Alexander, Chomsky, Stiny, and Halliday in this field. Patterns and grammars exist across many disciplines to build structures of communication and analysis: this thesis positions its argument within three-dimensional physical space. Derived from the data through constructivist grounded theory, the emergent grammar is validated through the analysis of two workplaces, demonstrating its robust nature and its rootedness in practice.
This study, therefore, proposes an explicit grammar of creative workplaces that can inform the design and the evaluation of physical workplaces. The study further proposes that in its generative form the grammar could provide a foundation for testing the influence of physical space on creativity, beyond the reported impact examined here.
This work aims to contribute to the fields of Architecture, Design and Creativity Research, and to inform and inspire those who create, and those who use, workplaces.



Alison Williams is an artist and writer, engaged with creating and growing an international community of women who have seen and acted upon a turning point in their lives. Her artwork explores what it means to be a wilding woman, and her book (in work) includes narratives written by wilding women.

Alison also researches and writes about her experience of symptom-reversal in her Parkinson’s disease, in collaboration with Joy Milne, the “super-smeller”. Alison is a patient advocate.

Alison’s PhD – A Grammar of Creative Workplaces – presents a visuo-spatial grammar examining how physical space impacts people’s ability to be creative in the workplace. She gained her PhD at the University of East London, with SMARTlab. Currently Honorary Professor of Creativity, Centre for Person-Centred Practice Research, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh; co-editor of BITE: Recipes for remarkable research (2014) and EqualBITE: Gender equality in higher education (2017). Alison has exhibited posters on her Parkinson’s research work at the 4th and 5th World Parkinson Congress and published in the Journal of Regenerative Medicine. Previous affiliations: The University of Edinburgh and Heriot Watt University.

bottom of page