Sensory nudges to enhance creative confidence

8 min readApr 13, 2022

(Structured nudging of the five senses)

A lot has been written on brain exercises to help improve creative confidence. I feel that creative confidence improves not only by doing brain exercises, but also by giving creative nudges to the entire human body. Design thinking practitioners or people in roles that drive creativity within an organization or within teams can use sensory nudging as a concept to enhance the creative confidence of individuals, teams and the organization. In this article, I will explain how organizations can enhance the creative confidence of individuals and teams by nudging the five sensory organs.

Please read What is the importance of design thinking? to learn about design thinking in detail.

Sensory nudging

The human brain responds to every cue that it is exposed to. For example, imagine a moment when you are feeling fresh. If you are asked to stay in a room with low illumination and with some sad music playing in the background, you will soon start feeling tired and sleepy. This happens, because of priming — a concept in human behaviour where an exposure to a cue influences a response to a subsequent cue automatically. Priming, in simple terms, can be explained with this example: If I say “nurse”, you automatically think of a hospital and a doctor.

Having worked with over 2,000 creativity practitioners so far, I have found that the sensory nudges discussed here, if planted in the environment, can enhance people’s creative confidence. While I have tried to classify nudges in the category of five human senses — i.e., sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch — each nudge can engage multiple senses in different ways. It is advisable to look at them in both independent and interdependent contexts.

Visual nudging

It is believed that, as children, we learnt and replicated things, based on what we saw our elders doing. The visionary sense has a huge impact on how we think, how we act and how we make sense of the world around us. While making the creative exercises engaging for the design thinkers, the visual sense can bring a lot of value in enhancing the creative productivity of individuals and teams. Planting some visual nudges in our surroundings can help enhance our mind’s capabilities to think creatively or to broaden our mind’s horizons. Below are some nudges that one can plant to engage the visual senses and enhance creative confidence.

  • Illumination: Bright illumination with light-coloured walls enhance productivity in a work environment.
  • Messaging: Use inspirational messages on walls. For example, a poster like “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” –Steve Jobs can be displayed to get the added advantage of enhancing creativity.
  • Visual cues: Visual cues, like iconography and infographics, can make a big impact on the results of a creative session. For example, if we use the iconography of a road, it gives a clear signal to the team of an expected roadmap. Inserting the right visual cues creates a huge impact on the output of a creative get-together.
  • Colours: Different colours bear different implications on our mood, behaviour and thinking. Let us explore four common colours.
  • The intellectual blue: Blue is the colour of intellect. It represents trust, logic, communication and efficiency. Use blue when the work requires focus and invoices mental strain.
  • The emotional yellow: Yellow is a colour of emotions. It represents creativity, friendliness, optimism and confidence. Incorporate yellow when you want to stimulate positivity, creativity and happiness.
  • The balanced green: Green is the colour of balance. It represents harmony, nature and restoration. Use green when you are looking to think divergent and are discussing something to build on each other’s ideas.
  • The physical red: Red is a physical colour. It represents courage, strength and excitement. Use red when you expect people to roll up their sleeves and get into action, e.g., during prototyping, product development, etc.
  • Set-up: A more open set-up can help people to collaborate easily. It breaks the contests of “my idea” vs “your idea” and converts all of them to “our idea”. An ideal scenario is a room without too many boardroom tables, but with more whiteboards/walls and places to sit together.

Audio nudging

The second one in the row is to plant audio cues in the surrounding that can help to enhance our creative energies. Let me cite two examples.

Imagine, some high-pitch, energetic music being played when we enter a space vs some slow, boring music being played when you enter another space.

Imagine a conference conducted by a speaker from whom you just love to hear vs another conference, having similar content but conducted by a speaker with whom you were just not able to engage.

In both the above cases, the second circumstances must have seemed uninteresting. This happened because of audio signalling. In the first case, there was soothing music that helped enhance the connection. In the second case, the speaker who was able to engage with us had used the right tone to set the mood. They used the right words to engage.

Below are some things that we can plant in our environment to help improve audio signalling for enhanced creative confidence.

Most creative processes have two stages — the stage of divergence and the stage of convergence. Let us look at the audio cues in context of these two stages.


  • Divergent thinking: It demands to think of new ways, ideas, possibilities to solve the problem. Research proves that a ‘happy and uplifting music’ enhances creativity, as it helps the human brain to relax and bring a positive mood. A positive mood helps the brain explore new possibilities or even convert constraints to possibilities.
  • Convergent thinking: This stage requires us to be critical and take decisions on solutions to be chosen. Research says that music acts like a distraction during this stage. As the mind needs to think critically, it needs to focus deeply on each point. It is recommended that during convergent stages, it is better to keep the environment silent and calm.

Word selection

  • Divergent thinking: This is the stage where the expectation is to explore diverse and wild possibilities. At this point, it is all about increasing: “increase numbers”, “increase wildness”, “increase collaboration” and “increase creation”. The words used during this stage have a great impact on thinking ideas and also in building on ideas of others. Using positive words like “Yes, and …”, “What if …”, “How else …”, “Where else …”, “Let’s add …” and having inspirational quotes around help enhance divergence.

Here are some examples:

  • Let the child in you do the thinking.
  • Explore, Experiment, Exemplify
  • Creative people make places CREATIVE.
  • Boundaries are just in the mind.
  • Once a creator, always a creator.
  • Fear is not an emotion for the creative!
  • Convergent thinking: This stage is all about selecting, critical thinking and decision-making. This is the stage where emotions run high and the battle of “my idea” vs “your idea” starts. While there is some critiquing involved at this stage, I feel the need is to have constructive criticism, which will help lead to conversion from “my idea” to “our idea”. This means using words that lead to critiquing in a positive manner, e.g., “advice”, “suggestion”, “input” and “recommendation”. You may have a structured framework to support decision-making.

Taste nudging

Our mind is a complex muscle, and it needs fuel to run smoothly and actively. Research says that eating healthy generally increases human creativity. However, we will try to understand this a bit deeply and see what some of the things are that we can eat / drink to enhance our creativity.

  • Dark chocolates: Flavanols, a nutrient found in chocolates, increase blood flow to the brain by dilating vessels. In addition, dark chocolate contains the perfect amount of caffeine and, most importantly, magnesium, which helps decrease stress and releases the “happy hormones”, such as serotonin and endorphins.
  • Green tea: It contains theanine, an important amino acid analogue. Theanine helps improve cognition and reduces stress by promoting the production of alpha waves in the brain. These alpha waves release caffeine slowly, rather than in a burst, so we avoid that sudden crash and maintain productivity and creativity.
  • Walnuts: Walnuts are packed with neuroprotective compounds, such as melatonin, antioxidants, and omega-3s which help increase cognitive performance and inferential reasoning.
  • Berries: One of the great things about berries is that there are so many options to pick from and each of them contains tyrosine. In addition, berries help maintain communication between brain cells and help activate the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF helps in survival, growth, and differentiation of new neurons, which is a must when it comes to creative thinking.
  • Avocados: In order to think creatively, our brain depends on constant blood flow and glucose. This green fruit enhances blood flow and delivers the oxygen needed for our brain cells.

Touch nudging

It is said that as small infants, when we could not see clearly or make sense of the language spoken to us, we made sense of the people and environment with touch. Remember, we always knew our “mother’s touch”! The environment that we physically interact with, has a huge impact on our creativity. When we get into creativity sessions, physical elements can be planted to enhance creativity by touch.

I always say, “Make it physical!”

  • Temperature: As per research, keeping the ambiance cold reduces creativity, because the body uses energy to keep itself warm. So, it is recommended that the ambient environment should be kept warm for the body to focus its energies on thinking and creating.
  • Material: We think that it is only our brains that work. But if we start creating shapes while thinking, our whole body starts thinking! So, keeping materials that can help us imagine and create shapes in parallel helps increase the creative ability. During discussions, keeping materials that can be moulded into any shape helps. These include clay, ice-cream sticks, marsh-mellow, paper, post-its and chart papers. These materials can also help foster imagination through touch.

Smell nudging

Smell has a powerful impact on our emotions and triggers more access to memories than any of the other senses. Using the right ones gives our subconscious mind the cue to jump-start the creativity process. When we get into creativity sessions, it is important to nudge our body with the right smell as this can have a huge impact on our ability to think creatively.

  • Natural smells: Studies show that certain smells like jasmine, lemon, vanilla and cinnamon boost cognitive performance.
  • Scents: We can even use scents that are personal preferences, like the smell of candyfloss that reminds us of childhood, the smell of the morning soil, the smell after the first rains (petrichor) or the smell of the perfume we wore at our wedding.

Through the article, I have tried to touch upon this important but less-explored topic of sensory nudging for creativity. There are many more ways to nudge the human senses for enhanced creativity. Creativity practitioners should plant sensory nudges to enhance individual and organizational creativity.

You may also read how storytelling based on design thinking can effectively enhance your customer lifetime value (CLV). To understand CLV in detail, go to the article How to increase customer lifetime value?.

About the author, Ajay Aggarwal

A Haryanvi by origin, an entrepreneur at heart and a consultant by choice, that’s how Ajay likes to introduce himself! Ajay is the Founding Partner at Humane Design and Innovation Consulting (HDI). Before starting HDI, Ajay founded the Design Thinking and Innovation practice at KPMG India. His 16+ years of professional career spans across various roles in product and service design, conducting strategy workshops, storytelling and enabling an innovation culture. He has coached 50+ organizations and 2000+ professionals in institutionalizing design and innovation practices. He loves to blog and speak on topics related to Design Thinking, Innovation, Creativity, Storytelling, Customer Experience and Entrepreneurship. Ajay is passionate about learning, writing poems and visualizing future trends!

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