Posted on 2/5/2015 2:41 PM by Chris

Aesthetics are important. The environment we are in affects us emotionally, and, if designed appropriately, has the power to promote wellness of both body and mind. But how do we harness it?

Through evidence based design strategies, design professionals are finding inventive and efficient ways of applying the lessons of psychology to interior environments, with proven beneficial results in terms of emotional and behavioral responses. Here are three simple techniques that designers can apply to any project to improve the psychological impacts of the space.

Technique One: Persuasive Design

Persuasive Design is a relatively new paradigm that takes steps to embed persuasive arguments into physical objects. Its purpose is to instill clients with the motivation to change their behavior. Having seating around a table instead of in front of a television will persuade clients to be more social, for example, while the use of stools or benches will persuade more customers to sit up straight.

The “active design” movement has embraced persuasive design strategies perhaps most prominently in recent years. A great example of comes from the Odenplan subway station in Stockholm, where Volkswagen Sweden installed a piano staircase as part of a marketing campaign called “The Fun Theory.” Watch this video to see how it works to make visitors more active and engaged.

Although Persuasive Design is still evolving, it can’t change peoples’ minds by itself! If someone is determined to watch television or take the escalator, then new   seating arrangements and piano staircases won’t prevent them from doing so. The persuasive design process is about getting to understanding your end users and experimenting with ways to change their relationship with their environment, but just like in life, you can’t please everyone. Success comes in percentages, not the whole.  

For more on persuasive design techniques, check out Design with Intent: 101 patterns for influencing behaviour through design by Dan Lockton. The toolkit explores a collection of design patterns for influencing behavior, posing them in question-form to be used as a brainstorming tool across a range of design fields. 

Technique Two: Spatial Perception

The spatial conditions of the places you create can play a particularly important part in the emotions and behavior of your clients and the people passing through. People have a very strong emotional response to being closed in; indeed, it is estimated that as much as 10% of the population suffers from a clinical fear of enclosed spaces, also known as Claustrophobia. Keep in mind, however, that the way we perceive spaciousness isn’t founded only on the actual physical dimensions of a place: Lighting, geometry, color, furnishings, and materiality are just a few of the factors contributing spatial perception. Altering the boundaries of a space—like designing cut-out shapes into partition walls to make them more porous—can be enough to turn a “claustrophic” environment into something more comfortable.

For a fun look at how our spatial cognition can play tricks on us, check out this series of optical illusions, like the one below.

One physical dimension worth considering closely is ceiling height. Research suggests that high-ceilinged rooms promote free-thinking and abstract thinking, while people in rooms with 8-foot ceilings or lower feel more confined and become more detail-orientated in their thought processes. Understanding how ceiling heights can affect not only a person’s mood, but also their ability to perform certain types of tasks becomes critical when designing for work and education environments.

Technique Three: Simulate Natural Environments

Research has shown that sterile environments can elicit fear, anxiety and stress, whereas natural environments tend to put people at ease. Likewise, bringing elements of nature indoors has a similar effect—improving working environments as well as creating an optimal atmosphere for healing and recovery.

In one study, employees working in environments with natural elements reported 13% higher wellbeing and were 8% more productivite. Another showed that working in close proximity to plants improves concentration and memory retention. Even in high-stress environments like jail intake areas, research from AIA, the American Association for Justice, and the National Institute of Corrections suggests that views or depictions of nature can reduce stress and lower heart rates. 


The Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility, before and after a study on the impacts of simulated nature. See AIA’s synopsis here.

To learn more about the relationship between nature, the human body, and the built environment, check out Terrapin Bright Green’s “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design,” which includes strategies for integrating these ideas into your next project.

Check back next week for part three in the series, when we head to Weesp, Netherlands to see pioneering evidence based design in action, and review a case study on designing for people with severe dementia.