The Psychology of Interior Design


In Hong Kong and other wealthy enclaves in China, many upperclass Chinese have no qualms about spending big bucks for a top-notch Feng Shui consultant to evaluate their home or office to ensure their space’s energy alignment will boost their fortune. In fact, some multinational corporations have even had to move offices in Hong Kong because the building was seen as having poor flow by superstitious employees. At the American Institute of Architects (AIA) conference in Washington, D.C., Barbara Stewart, a San Francisco-based architect and trained Feng Shui practitioner, says there must be some practical value in this ancient practice if it has lasted 4,000 years. Covering a range of both “mind, body, spirt” and science-based approaches, Stewart called for a return to “intuitive, emotional” design and a move away from the cold intellectualism practiced by many contemporary architects.

“Architecture is now disconnected from other disciplines and the rest of humanity,” said Stewart, who has consulted for big-name firms like Kaiser Permanente and NBBJ Architects. Quoting one environmental psychologist, she said “architects see form, light, and color” whereas the rest of us see “walls, floors, doors.” Architects can’t help it; they’ve been trained this way. “Our approach is intellectual.” From day-one of architecture school, architects are trained to “worship novelty and originality” given the goal is to “move architecture in new directions.” However, she said “emotions are pulling our clients and end users in another direction.” As an example: When AIA polled the public on their favorite buildings, it was clear no one architectural style won. She said this proved that “people look at buildings with emotions, not intellect.” The disconnect between architects and the public is further demonstrated through architecture magazines that promote the latest bold, sharp forms that do not make people healthy or happy.

Stewart said we share 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. If zoologists, who design habitat for chimps, were to design habitat for us, what would it look like? “A zoologist would design a place that reinforces our natural patterns and reduces stressors.” In nature, humans are used to short bursts of stress — say, running from a lion — but not the “low-level constant stress we find in modern life.” The modern world sets off stressors more frequently, which wear down our immune systems. “Stress is directly linked to all the diseases we face” so all buildings and landscapes must work to reduce this for everyone’s well-being and to control healthcare costs.  

Almost all civilizations have ancient forms of environmental psychology. In India, Vastu Shastra has been around for 5,000 years. Feng shui, a descendant of the Indian practice, has been around 4,000 years. Geomantic patterns were created by the Romans, Druids, Aborigines, and Native Americans. “They all designed structures according to nature and in tune with the natural environment.”

Now, with the rise of neuroscience for the built environment, biophilic design, environmental psychology, and “evidence-based design,” particularly among the healthcare field, more scientific understandings of “mind, body, spirit” designs are coming into being. Outlining a few of her “instinct-based design principles,” Stewart pulled from a mix of these approaches to make her points, many of which sounded a bit wacky at first, but on reflection are actually quite intuitive:

Interiors should be designed with humans in mind, who understand space at an instrinsic level as a savannah. The ground should be darkest, like a path, whereas the mid-range, eye-level colors should be neutral, and the ceiling should be light, like the sky. “Humans feel most comfortable in spaces that follow nature, instead of monochromatic bubbles.” She showed a photo of a hospital room well-lit, with windows, and hardwood floors, a pleasing environment. She said there’s a reason everyone wants hardwood floors — it replicates the forest floor.

As an example of what not to do, she pointed to a icky hospital ward where floor to ceiling there’s just one shade of yellow, which is highly stress-inducing. Monochromatic bubbles are not only displeasing, but also dangerous for older people. “A 75-year old sees just 1/2 the contrast of a 25-year old. A 95-year old sees just 1/5 the contrast.” These single-color hallways actually “increase stress for older people.”

Stewart said all humans want a window view. Pointing to well-known studies by Ulrich in the mid-80s, she said views of landscapes out of hospital windows significantly reduced the amount of pain medication needed and sped up recovery times. Then, studies conducted in the late 90s showed that even images of real or simulated nature can improve recovery times, although photos of real nature scenes work better. Also, patients with access to videos of nature — forests, flowers, oceans, waterwalls — used pain medicine less.

One interesting study from a mental health journal found that Jackson Pollock prints “actually increased stress in everyone,” while a National Geographic-like nature photos dramatically reduced anxiety. A landscape painting by Van Gogh “had no demonstrable effect.” Within the realm of natural scenes, there are particular types of landscape images that are more restorative. Long-distance views with sun and sky are relaxing because instinctively they mean “good weather for hunting and gathering and no predators.” Theories about prospect and refuge have been batted around by biophilic designers for some time but Stewart argues that ancient environmental designers had this down a long time ago: Feng Shui’s “command position” is all about finding a safe point and clear vista. She said in contemporary film, Mafia dons know to find the spot in the corner with views of all doors. Even dogs will sit with their back to a wall if they can.

Spring, summer, early autumn photos with lots of green are effective, while winter scenes won’t have much effect. Photos with signs of humans in the foreground are important, as they show “this is a safe place.” She said Ansel Adams-like photos of massive landscapes or shots of “uncomfortable view points” don’t help. “Restorative images are not exciting — but that’s the point.”

Incorporating biophilic design elements into interiors also soothes. Roofs can become green, or where that’s not feasible, simply covered with astroturf or painted a more pleasing natural color. In windowless offices, imitation windows and clerestories can be painted with fake views. Woods can be used throughout, and where that isn’t possible, like in a hospital setting, wood-laminates. (She didn’t mention the incredible value of daylight alone).

She said more companies need to think through the effect of colors. One client had a dull conference room that actually stymied creative discussion. Simply painting a wall orange “lifted energy levels.” She said McDonald’s has known this for years, which is why they paint all their stores in “high-energy colors like red, yellow, and orange so you eat more, faster.” Casinos and retailers are also excellent at “designing energizing spaces on purpose.” To better succeed, she thinks gyms should similarly be painted in brighter, exciting colors to get people to exercise more. In contrast, she said a hospital’s ER bereavement area would need to have more subdued tones to help staff impart more difficult information and not have emotional scenes.

Beyond colors, forms can also induce stress or relax. Angled walls and ceilings or visually unsupported forms “increase energy and tension.” She wondered whether these were appropriate in a school or office, or Alzheimer’s clinic? In some places, though, like a conference center or stadium, perhaps these bolder forms are worthwhile because they induce excitement. A crucial form often neglected is interior wayfinding. Explaining what Frederick Law Olmsted always knew, she said, people like to take the meandering path, which feels like a “path through nature.” Also, for any building, people seek a clear doorway. “As a default, the center of the building should be the location of the door.” An entry way is defined by a visible doorway, a different color or material, and higher volume.” In addition, the entry way should be clear of distracting patterns, at least 10 feet within the doorway, as people, especially older visitors, will find them confusing and become tentative about entering.

To conclude, Stewart made some practical suggestions all good designers should already know: Turn on your instinctive, emotional brain; remove your design ego; pretend you are an 85-year old and a 9-year old. Ask yourself how the design makes you feel and behave. Does the building or landscape reduce or induce stress? Does this place make people healthier and happier? She said the healthcare field is increasingly demanding “evidence-based” approaches because “time is money,” and this is slowly spreading to other domains, so perhaps there’s less room for original yet stress-inducing forms and colors.  

Stewart recommended some resources: University of Minnesota’s Informe Design, the Center for Health Design, and a book, Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture. One important resource she left out: the Therapeutic Landscape Network.

Image credit: Laguna Honda Hospital / Arup

4 thoughts on “The Psychology of Interior Design

  1. Jouw Tuincoach 05/19/2012 / 4:40 am

    Great article on the importance of sustaining human nature and the universe that surrounds us. Thanks! Feng Shui adds a special touch that builds and brings harmony into the world we create and live in. An harmonious living space whether inside or outside certainly feels as a pleasure and provides healthy energy and supportive inspiration.
    Glad to read this! I love creating gardens and landscapes for people to lift their spirit and well-being. I believe a garden is the nearest natural treasure for relaxation, inspiration, social activities and joy at home. It brings the experience of the seasons and the wealth of living nature into the conciousness of people. Everything is energy!
    Warm and sunny regards, Mariëtte Verlaan (the Netherlands)

  2. Neil Kiner 05/23/2012 / 10:55 am

    Great read. So much of what we do as landscape architects is based in sociology. How people react to designed spaces. Our internal intuitions and energy are rooted in our connection to the earth, which for millenia has been on such a primitive level, that we now find ourselves struggling to find that connection in an ever changing world. That’s where landscape architects can begin to help societies find that inner peace and soul satisfying interaction through thoughtfully designed spaces intended to bring those experiences with nature and natural processes back into our daily lives.

  3. Susan Slotkis 05/25/2012 / 10:35 am

    I have a limited working knowledge of Feng Shui but do hold a Master’s Degree and decades of practice in Social Services (before my formal training in interior design). I am so pleased to see the evolving emphasis on human factors in the built environment and the collaboration of disciples this entails. The social work mantra “begin where the client is” still resonates with me. Evidenced-based, biophilic design, even environmental psychology, all very serious scientifically based disciplines blend very well with perhaps the more instinctive appreciation of human nature, our roots in nature, and the overall ideal for homeostasis, often an asymmetrical formula for balance. Thank you for pulling some of these threads together for those of us in the “built environment”. May I share this with my students (credited, of course)?

  4. Barbara Lyons Stewart 05/29/2012 / 7:16 pm

    Hello, this is Barbara Lyons Stewart and a colleague just told me about your very thorough review of my AIA seminar! Of course I am honored by your positive coverage and enjoyed reading the rest of the DIRT issue. I’ve become increasingly aware that landscape architects are way ahead of architects in their understanding of the importance of nature to our lives and health. I first experienced that when I gave psychology-based recommendations to a large national architectural firm after they presented a lobby / atrium design. The landscape designer at the meeting was nodding and came up with great suggestions for integrating real and artificial plants and trees, while the senior designer kept recommending slanted metal poles that “inferred a forest”. No one but design professionals would ever have thought ‘forest’ when looking at metal poles.

    Anyway, more than 60 people at my AIA seminar requested that I send them a larger bibliography and a description of my 18 Instinct-Based Design Principles. I am working on that now, and if any of your readers would like the same please e-mail me at barbara@lyonsarch.com and I’ll add you to my list.
    Thank you again from a new DIRT fan!

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