espresso machines and caffeinated chatter typical of most coffee shops creates just the right level of background noise to stimulate creativity. The website, which is free, plays an ambient coffee shop soundtrack that, according to researchers, helps people concentrate.
In a series of experiments that looked at the effects of noise on creative thinking, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had participants brainstorm ideas for new products while they were exposed to varying levels of background noise. Their results, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, found that a level of ambient noise typical of a bustling coffee shop or a television playing in a living room, about 70 decibels, enhanced performance compared with the relative quiet of 50 decibels.
A higher level of noise, however, about 85 decibels, roughly the noise level generated by a blender or a garbage disposal, was too distracting, the researchers found.
Ravi Mehta, an assistant professor of business administration at the university who led the research, said that extreme quiet tends to sharpen your focus, which can prevent you from thinking in the abstract.
“This is why if you’re too focused on a problem and you’re not able to solve it,” Dr Mehta said, “you leave it for some time and then come back to it and you get the solution.”
But moderate levels can distract people just enough so that they think more broadly. “It helps you think outside the box,” he said.
The benefits of moderate noise, however, apply only to creative tasks. Projects that require paying close attention to detail, like proofreading a paper or doing your taxes, Dr Mehta said, are performed better in quiet environments.
In other studies, he and his colleagues have found that exposure to certain colours can play a role as well. Switching the colour of your computer’s background screen to blue enhances performance on creative tasks, for example, while making it red helps with detail-oriented tasks. Large, open rooms with high ceilings may also promote creative thinking, they found.
The creators of the Coffitivity site struck upon their idea after brainstorming on an unrelated start-up in the Richmond, Virginia area.
“We had been in and out of coffee shops, and we were getting really good work done,” said ACe Callwood, a founder of the site and the coordinator for entrepreneurship at the Virginia Commonwealth University business school.
One member of the team, Justin Kauszler, noticed that when he returned to his regular work space, in a subdued and sterile office, his productivity took a nose-dive. When Kauszler’s boss shot down his request to leave the office and work from a coffee shop, he and his colleagues decided that they would bring their favourite coffee houses to their computers.
With some borrowed audio equipment in hand, they eventually hit on a spot with the ideal noise level, a place called Harrison Street Cafe.
“It had just the right mix of everything,” Callwood said. “You could get the coffee machine, and you had people talking and eating. It has two levels, and we got the vibe upstairs and downstairs.”
Coffitivity started on March 4, and that day it got about 120 page views. “I think our moms looked at it a hundred times,” Callwood joked.
Since then, traffic has “exploded,” he said. “Seoul, Korea, is our top user city. New York City is second, followed by London, LA and Chicago.”
Mr. Callwood and his colleagues at Coffitivity say they are now in the process of creating an app and adding new coffee shop soundtracks tailored to specific countries.