Amy's Whimsical Musings

Around the Water Colour



In my twenty + years of teaching, I really don’t ever remember having a water cooler at work. But I know they exist in most other professions, and consequently have evolved into a metaphor for everything from slacking off (as in: “let’s ditch work and waste time chatting by the water cooler”) to combinatorial creativity (as in: our creativity blossoms when we emerge from our cocoon and mingle with others from outside out immediate field).

There is actually a thing called the “water cooler effect” as explained in this highly academic paper from Georgia Institute of Technology. In a nutshell, this phenomenon is about the beauty and efficacy of informal learning. The environment for such autonomous, self-directed exploration is the shared cultural artifact of the water cooler. Basically, the

water cooler as affinity space

I am a HUGE advocate of informal learning (though not sure I love that term). I think the best learning (and creativity!) happens as a result of serendipity. I plan to pen another post devoted to serendipitous learning and creativity, so I shall leave that for now. But in essence, we gain much from not forcing things, from personal desire, and from mingling with a crowd outside our usual bubble. It’s the kind of thing Eli Pariser discusses in his TED talk.

What got me thinking is our shift from pure discourse and regurgitators of information ( cue in chatting about the latest Mad Men episode) to active members of participatory culture.

I might speak only for myself at this point, but I’ve

grown weary of yacking and slacking

I want to “do” make and create something useful…or not!

Which brings me to…

What if we had water COLOURS instead of water coolers?

In many of my posts and talks on the nature and how to of creativity, I speak of a certain

“studio vibe”

This is the nuanced juxtaposition of camaraderie meshed with individual pursuit. In an art studio, for example, you are often working independently and intensely but are surrounded by others and semi-cognizant of what they are working on as well. It’s a bit like our networks on the Internet, really, this “ambient awareness” that allows us to feel connected through time and space yet still strangely solitary.

For me, the “studio vibe” IRL or virtually enhances my creativity and thinking greatly. I am privileged to have developed a rich network over the years and enjoy many provocative conversations which give me sparks to write or ponder about. More importantly, however, are the chances I get to actually make things with people (for example, #hashtaggerie, #blimage, #visualversevolley, or #vizvovolley ).

So what if we had a common area for creative makery in every work place? One of the best PD experiences I ever participated in culminated in an hour exploration of different “fun” pursuits – like dance, art, cooking, and soccer. Each teacher signed up to something he or she felt drawn to and then spent the last part of a tiring day full of meetings reveling in the creative process. I found out things about my colleagues I never knew and in working together creatively (I was in the art studio of course), our barriers crumbled and tensions eased.

Of course, it could get messy, as in this lovely Schiele-meets-John Lennon illustration by Brad Ovenell-Carter as a response to my post.


But so what? Don’t we all need to get raw and vulnerable with our colleagues? I think so. At least, for anything innovative to happen. Moreover, we need to work with people outside or on the fringes of our insulated departments.

The best ideas come from mashing up disparate ideas.

My guess is that in making together we co-create an experience and a shared artifact. The artifact linking us is not arbitrary or imposed on us, like the water cooler – rather, we craft it ourselves…together.

Why not re-imagine the water cooler effect to be the water colour effect, and see what happens?




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