Close your eyes and imagine a creative visionary. What is he or she wearing? If you're inspired by Silicon Valley culture, this person may be wearing a black turtleneck and jeans, or perhaps a blue hoodie and flip-flops, the token outfits of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, respectively. In addition to their contributions to technology, the two men have made statements in the world of work fashion. When asked, both explained how their outfit choice helped them focus on the more important day-to-day decisions they make as leaders of multibillion-dollar companies. This is not a small thing.

Getting dressed in the morning--let alone the way your organization dresses itself--may be the last thing you want to think about, considering everything else you are managing. But it's time to rethink your priorities.

Research has shown that what we wear to work affects the way we are perceived by others and the way we perceive ourselves. For example, people who associate business attire with productivity see themselves as more trustworthy, authoritative, and productive when dressed in business formal but more friendly when dressed in casual wear. And for Jobs and Zuckerberg, their clothing choice likely made them more persuasive. When leaders are dressed more like their audience (in this case wearing more casual clothing like individual contributors at their companies), it makes them more relatable. People are more likely to take direction from someone they can connect with.

Above and beyond self- and external-perception, our clothing impacts the way we process information. In other words, what you're wearing may affect the way you think. This is called "enclothed cognition."

In one surprising study from Columbia and California State universities, people wearing formal clothing were able to think more creatively than their informally dressed counterparts.

Great. So a Steve Jobs-type goes casual but a creative thinker goes formal. Where does that leave you? Casual, formal, or wearing a towel staring at a closet full of clothes? If you're overwhelmed and undecided, there's good news. Multiple research studies have shown that your clothing's effect on you really just depends on the meaning you give it. If you're wearing an outfit that makes you feel more detail-oriented, you will be more detail-oriented.

For inspiration on what an ideal outfit might look like for a particular day on the job, I turned to the most creative professionals I know--my colleagues at global design company Ideo. In a given week, we might be brainstorming with Play-Doh and pipe cleaners one day, meeting with Fortune 500 C-suite clients the next day, and getting deep into InDesign layers the next. I asked the more than 100 designers at our San Francisco location: What outfits make you feel most creative? Most professional? Most productive?

Here are some highlights:

To feel creative, wear outfits that mimic a blank canvas

Creativity stems from a feeling of freedom. Choose clothing that gives you space, such as oversize or looser silhouette pieces and breathable materials. Metallic or black were commonly cited colors, and many also mentioned accessories such as caps, costume jewelry, funky socks, and cool shoes. A sample outfit might be an oversize black shirt, jeans, and funky metallic shoes. As one designer suggested, "Throw on an outfit that mimics a blank canvas, which invites fun accessorizing and personalizing--and that's where creativity comes in!"

To feel professional, choose clothes that mean business

Feeling professional is a balance between feeling put-together but not too stiff. To dress the part, choose to go with something tailored, collared, tucked in, or buttoned up. Dressier materials like silk typically do the trick, with accessories like nice shoes, a statement necklace, or a watch. A sample outfit might be a button-up top, structured pants, and nice shoes. To borrow from one industrial designer's motto: "Always wear a collared shirt to do business."

To feel productive, be ready to get your hands dirty

Feeling productive is about getting in the zone to get stuff done. Productivity comes with comfy, sometimes even gnarly and torn, clothing. Relaxed materials such as cotton or an elastic waist will send you jamming, especially with the help of flat sneakers or boots and headphones. A productive outfit might look like old jeans, cotton layers, and Converse sneakers. "Basically," explains one of our writers, "anything you are not worried about getting dirty."

No matter what my colleagues or science suggests, remember that you are what you wear. So wear something that feels most "you." If you aren't comfortable in your clothes, you won't be comfortable in your skin.

Published on: Oct 17, 2016
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