Our Environment

by Derek MacKenzie

The Psychology of Our Working Environments

No one would ever suggest that a poorly planned and inefficient workspace is a better alternative than a chaotic or wasteful one. But while space planning is a fundamental and integrated component of any commercial interior (maybe even the most important single element), it is not alone in the assessesor’s judgement and determination of a successful design.

Have you ever walked from one space to another (a room or an area) and noticed how one just ‘feels’ better than the other…but you can’t put you finger on just why? You might even say something like ‘…..I don’t know, I just don’t like this space as much as the previous one’.

With all the recent talk about productive and operationally disciplined work environments, there seems to be an emerging trend to marginalize those qualities of our office surroundings which can help lift our spirits.

I have read a great deal, practiced, and proposed, designed, built, learned and even written many articles on how important it is to carefully consider medium and long term corporate strategies when planning the spaces in which these strategies will unfold. But planning alone, (even the clever, strategic juxtaposition of dynamic business units) within a modern and well facilitated, headquarters building, cannot appease the human needs for balance, comfort, satisfaction and interest.

For decades, interior designers and space planners have striven mightily to achieve some proximity of perfection (within the context of contemporary thinking) on what is the most functional, practical, space saving and/or flexible system for space planning corporate interiors. So fixated are we with our arguments about pragmatism, and the benefits of spatial utility, that at times, we can underrate just how important the subjective qualities of our surroundings are in the potential to drive productivity.

In a very real sense, we can be delighted and noticeably stimulated by the assembly of a carefully contrived interior design.

Provided always, that the basic sensibilities of layout are followed, the office environment as a work place in which most people will spend the majority of their waking hours, can still either fail, succeed or excel in the eyes of the occupant, in response to those elements which help govern our emotional response to these spaces. No matter how sensible the layout, any design aspirations of the client (whose business will be embedded within the interior), can easily fall short of achieving their full potential without the guidance and experience of professional interior designers.

A huge variety of elements are required to be brought together and sensitively blended to achieve the best results. Many of these are ‘behind-the-scenes’ where issues of acoustics, ventilation, technical infrastructure or details related to the make up of walls, doors and ceilings are determined. Although hidden from view, these can have profound effects on the user experience.

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No less important are those things which are visually apparent, even if they are subtle. One example would be if the proportions of a room or the elements within it are out of sync, the room can feel odd. Likewise, the patterns of various surfaces can steer perception toward different responses – straight and evenly spaced lines, borders or frames can feel disciplined and formal, while soft flowing lines or unusual angles can stimulate a more relaxed and affable disposition.

The way surfaces and volumes are lit have poignant impact on the occupant’s feelings and can help to emphasize or suppress elements or points of interest that the designer (and/or the client) wants the observer to notice. These create mood or settings for various purposes. Equally, it can be quite eerie and uncomfortable being in a space which has every element lit to the same degree, with little or no shadow.

Feeling ‘comfortable’ in a space – particularly a workspace, where workers spend so many days occupying one location repetitively, is tremendously important to productivity. Constant fidgeting, restlessness and repositioning can not only be annoying, it can be highly disruptive to concentration.

Along with lighting, another issue of ergonomics (the study of the relationship between workers and their environment) which is often neglected is acoustics. Elements which should be addressed through the design process are : the sound of foot-fall, the slamming door, noisy air conditioning, sound leakage from room to room and the echo-effects created within enclosed spaces which have hard, opposing surfaces.

This topic cannot be concluded without some discussion on colour and materials. Of all the items which are discretionary within a client’s budget, the selection of materials (and to a certain extent furnishing) is the most influential.

Colour and materials are probably the most emotionally charged of all the elements of an interior, carrying as they do, message which can indicate status, taste and brand alignment

However, there are practical elements here too (especially with materials), which can impact maintenance and the longevity expectations of surfaces and products. Example : glass walls can be two to three times the cost of solid partitions; but their benefits include very low maintenance, extremely high longevity expectations and the ability to transmit natural light, views and visual communication which solid walls cannot.

The effects achievable through the use of colour are almost limitless. Colour has a powerful impact on our psychology and therefore our perception of the meaning of the space being treated. These are played-up and emphasized in the design of retail and hospitality environments, where the term of customer/guest interaction is short.

Designers know that colour will have an impact on the customer and that within a short time span, a sales transaction must be stimulated. The effect of colour on office environments can be similarly potent. It goes without saying that a sense of the active/passive/dull/interesting/bright or boring can all be elicited simply through the application of colour.

But Brand Managers can encourage designers to take this many steps further.

Unilever have adopted a scheme proposed by their designers, called ‘sensory sensational’. They are in the business of satisfying the senses…sight, touch, smell, taste, sound. Their office environment will reflect this sensorial character. It will challenge and engage staff and visitors to touch, taste, smell, listen and look at the environment they are in.

Intriguing textures, engaging smells, arresting sights, ambient sounds and tantalizing tastes will come to life in a sophisticated way throughout their public and working spaces.

Fuji Xerox is in the highly competitive field of copying equipment. One of the fastest developing sectors is colour copying. As a leader in their field, all staff and customers are encouraged to think and celebrate the colourful world they are in. It is a high volume, low margin business and the people involved in the trade need to be vigorous and energetic. Their work space was designed to represents youthful, stimulating, active, motivated community which can have fun within all the seriousness of a working environment.

Euro Hypo is a European Bank which is very proud of its brand. Although a serious and highly respected financial institution, their office environment needed to carry messages of ‘precision’, ‘unity’, ‘single purposeness’, with a ‘passion for solutions’. The distinctive brand persona is an important aspect of the banks identity as a leader in their field, and the essence of this was to carry into the work environment.

Austrade needed a work environment which brought together the efficiencies of contemporary work-place practices and a character which was truly Australian.

In each of the examples above, is not only a plan which is efficient, flexible and disciplined in its own right, but a design which has purpose and meaning to the people who work there and visit.

A truly successful corporate interior will maximize the potential to achieve this dual objective.