Why Design Matters

Design matters because it affects us emotionally.

Photo by Grovemade on Unsplash

Even when a space isn’t expressly created to wow us, disturb us, excite us, to make us feel happy or sad, it leads us to feel some emotion or another. That reaction influences how we think and behave. When we’re in a good mood, we’re better at problem solving and getting along with others, for example. Design can make it more likely that we’ll be in a good mood, or a bad one—and there are times when bad moods are the right ones, although we won’t be discussing them in this article.

The emotions we’re feeling affect how we experience the world around us and our expectations of it, which have real world consequences.

An example: size (particularly height), materials, craftsmanship and a load of other factors influences whether something we see, feel, taste, touch, or hear awes us. Research has shown that when we’re awed we’re more likely to process information efficiently and effectively, think more creatively, feel less impatient, have an open mind, and behave in a more public spirited way.

“Research” in the last paragraph has a very important meaning. It refers to rigorously conducted science-based studies that follow strict rules. The protocols followed mean you can be confident applying what is learned. Research is not hunches and doesn’t just happen. It is carefully planned and its methods aren’t intuitively obvious but are learned in detail-oriented classes, semester after semester.

Architectural, interior, industrial, and landscape design are all processed in our brains in the same way. Looking at curved lines helps to relax us, whether those lines are found in an archway or one the back of a sofa—just as it revs us up a little bit if the same lines are more rectilinear. All of the emotional effects tied to all of the different sensory experiences we’re having at one time are “added up” in our brain and we find ourselves anxious or awed, confident or confused, sad, happy, or something else entirely.

Working through ways to guide people to specific emotions takes more words than are available here—learning how to increase the likelihood that people are likely to be in the right mood to succeed at knowledge work is a more reasonable goal.

Synthesizing available design-related research in the physical and social sciences as well as studies of human mental performance and wellbeing indicates that the sorts of spaces where we’re in just the right mood to do knowledge work do three interrelated things.

  • Comfort
  • Communicate
  • Coordinate

A space that comforts, for example:

  • Supplies people with a reasonable amount of control over their physical environments. At meaningful decision points they can choose among a carefully curated set of options. They don’t need to tune circular dials that determine the light in a conference room through myriad of color options and endless levels of light intensity, but instead can choose from four or so lighting preset options that have been selected to align with the expectations of how the conference room will be used, for analytical work or socializing, for example. Similarly, there are four to six different workplace types to choose from in an activity based workplace. More options than that makes choosing stressful—and stress soaks up mental energy that’s better used for the task at hand.
  • Provides a way to restock mental processing power after it’s been depleted by concentrating. After we’ve worn down our cognitive energy stocks doing work that requires us to focus, our performance is not only degraded, but we’re more distractible and irritable. We’re mentally refreshed and de-stressed by looking at views of nature and at art that depicts nature, for example, and also by looking into aquariums. Seeing water seems to have a nearly magical effect on our brains. A desktop fountain, with it’s burbling purr, can relax us and a manmade water element in a manmade space, such as a fountain with gently moving water in a built courtyard, restocks our mental processing power as effectively as looking at nature though that window.
  • Aligning the design of a space with the national and organizational cultures of the user groups is also comforting. People from more individualistic countries more actively modify their environments, so unless they’ve got some built in flexibility they can ugly up fast, for instance. People from more collectivistic cultures prefer more curvilinear design elements while people from more individualistic cultures are comfortable in environments with more rectilinear ones, as another example. When we’re experiencing the sorts of environments we prefer, our mood improves.
  • Biophilic design, with its gentle motion, secure views over the nearby world, and other features also comforts users. Biophilic design has been extensively reported in the professional press.

Places that communicate, for instance:

  • Send messages to users that boost their self-esteem, ones that show that the organization values them and the contribution that they make to its success. Determining how to signal value is best done at the organizational level. In some companies being seated near the boss indicates respect for the contribution a group makes and in others it signals that a group better get its act together, for example.
  • Make it easy for people to speak with each other when they choose to do so, in ways that are pleasant. The best configurations of seats are ones in which the front edges of seats are at right angles to each other, for example. When people are seated like that they can make eye contact when they wish and gracefully look away from each other when an “eye break” is needed or the conversation ventures into a more challenging topic. Research also continues to show that we collaborate with the people we physically encounter as we move through our work day; the relationship between contact and collaboration has even been quantified, and the effects are large.

When a space coordinates, it:

  • Supports the task at hand, whether that’s bonding with coworkers or analytically resolving a thorny problem or something else.
  • Aligns with the required energy levels. When people are doing something that’s mentally challenging, it’s best if they’re in a space that won’t boost their energy levels, and instead is relatively calming. People doing something that doesn’t require much focus, either because they’ve done it many times before or it’s just plain easy do better work in an area with a little more going on.
  • Is designed in a way that’s consistent with environment-based cognitive science. Research, for example, links creative thinking to spaces that features the color green, plants, user control, earth-friendly design, cushioned seats, moderate visual complexity, ample numbers of curved lines/contours, natural-appearing wood grain, warmish light, and the smell of cinnamon-vanilla (so, buy that Cinnabon roll), as well as particular ceiling heights and furniture styles—and that’s just the tip of the ice burg of the research on place design and creative thinking.

Mood matters because it influences what goes on in our heads and what happens in our heads affects what we do. Design is powerful because its effect on our emotional state is strong. Use your design power wisely.

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