Beyond Health & Wellness: Designing Interiors for Human Thriving

By Ariane Laxo

For decades, interior designers have known that design can affect the health of occupants by causing or preventing disease and even supporting health. With the growth of new rating systems such as WELL and Fitwel, this knowledge has begun to expand to the more inclusive concept of wellness, which is often defined as holistic physical and emotional well being. The National Wellness Institute (NWI) builds upon this definition, adding four additional dimensions: intellectual, occupational, social and spiritual. According to the NWI, “wellness is an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.”

Ariane Laxo

As designers began to discover the positive ways the designed environment can influence user health and wellness, the field of positive psychology was growing in parallel. Since the early 1990s, psychology has been expanding from a narrow focus on pathology (i.e., what’s wrong with people) to a broader view that includes an understanding of human thriving (i.e., what makes people successful and happy). The resulting inclusive approach — positive psychology — can take design a step further beyond preventing disease and encouraging physical activity, illustrating the impact design can have on happiness, creativity and other conditions for human flourishing.

So how, exactly, can interior environments support thriving individuals and organizations? While positive psychology research is broad and deep, five concepts stand out as directly applicable to the design of interiors:

Learning from What Works: Appreciative Inquiry

Designers are inherently problem solvers. They look for what isn’t working and, through a collaborative design process, determine the best solutions. Yet, organizations grow and improve the most when they are curious and leverage their strengths, rather than only giving time and attention to correcting their weaknesses. Appreciative Inquiry focuses on leveraging an organization’s strengths — what they already do well — to correct the problems or negatives. When beginning a new project, the programming phase should not only include discussions of problems that need correcting through the design process, it should also ask clients what workflows are successful, what culturally makes their company strong and unique and other questions to uncover the organization’s positive core, so that it can inform and strengthen solutions. When verbiage is shifted to reflect this approach, and designers use words such as “opportunity” or “challenge” rather than “problem,” solutions are strengthened and design teams are invigorated.

Understanding Emotional Response to Space: Pleasure-Arousal-Dominance Hypothesis

Long before positive psychology was born as a field, environmental psychologists studied how humans interact with and are influenced by their environments. The Pleasure-Arousal-Dominance Hypothesis (Mehrabian & Russell, 1974) is enhanced and supported by more recent research in positive psychology and is worth revisiting. Mehrabian & Russell hypothesized that humans have three primary emotional responses to space: pleasure (positive feelings), arousal (excitement or challenge), dominance (control over their environment) and that they are most satisfied when all three emotional needs are met. Further, human behavior in an environment is affected directly by its emotional impact. This explains why when people work in drab, monotonous environments that do not provide them with any control over their space, more workers are disengaged and dissatisfied. The opposite is also true: Work environments that are pleasing aesthetically, fun, have a variety of settings and offer users some control (thermal comfort, lighting, personalization, adjustability/flexibility of furnishings, etc.) result in more engaged and satisfied workers. Using this hypothesis as a guide when designing interior space can inform the resulting design to better predict users’ emotional and behavioral responses in that space.

Encouraging Mind Wandering Through Design: Supporting the Creative Process

While many frameworks exist that define the creative process, a critical step that is consistent across all models is incubation. After the initial programming, data collection or preparation period, where all that can be learned about the creative challenge is learned, the best next step is to do something else. Give it time, sit with what was learned and, most importantly, don’t think about it. In most working environments today, with pressure to do more for less and strive for efficiency, this stage is often overlooked, to the detriment of the results. Though counterintuitive to many businesses, taking a break from the work is a prerequisite to the moment of illumination. The best solutions come while on a walk, having a cup of coffee or reading a magazine. A recent study found mind wandering, thinking of something different than the challenge or problem at hand, to be a significant predictor of creativity. Designers can not only support the creative process by including attractive, inviting spaces for breaks, mind-wandering and other tasks to occur in the incubation stage, they can work with clients to inform them of the value of this step to the creative output of their employees, so they can create a culture that embraces all stages of the creative process.

Minimizing Distractions & Fostering Flow: Focus Spaces

While research has shown the value of mind wandering and the incubation period in the creative process, when a solution is clear, the most important next step seems simple: Get it done. People do their best work when they experience flow, where the world falls away, and they are so focused on the task at hand, work is like a form of mindfulness meditation. Cal Newport uses the term “deep work” and suggests that high-quality work is a product of time spent and intensity of focus. Focus can easily be broken in the world of email notifications, text messages and social media. Even a coworker disrupting focused work by asking an impromptu question can serve as a distraction. Studies repeatedly show the detriments of multitasking, including decreasing our ability to focus on one task even when we want to, lowering our IQ and increasing chances of errors. This research brings a higher level of importance to designing spaces for concentration, free of distraction. Strategies to discuss with the client may include: providing phone rooms, establishing cultural quiet times where no interruptions are allowed, including high-backed booths in a work café and even enclosed offices, if appropriate. The entire workday will not consist of deep work, so understanding the unique needs of each client will be critical to designing solutions that incorporate strategies to minimize distractions as an appropriate part of the overall palette.

Supporting an Evolving Culture: Transition Planning

While interior designers can practice evidence-based design, applying lessons learned from positive psychology to the field, even more important is the cultural shift that can result in a work environment that fosters happiness and conditions for human thriving. Much like industrial designers work with owners to streamline efficiencies in process and workflow, through transition planning, consultants can help a client make the transition from their existing culture to an ideal, future state. This expertise is rarely held by design team members, and it may be valuable to bring a positive organizational development consultant or a corporate happiness consultant onto the team to facilitate this process.

The impact of the designed environment has the potential to go beyond positively influencing health and wellness of occupants. By leveraging research in the field of positive psychology, designers’ work can contribute to the optimal conditions for human and organizational thriving — the pinnacle of the human condition.

Ariane Laxo, CID, LEED AP ID+C, EDAC, is an interior designer at national firm HGA Architects and Engineers, where she co-chairs the firm’s sustainability council and represents HGA in the AIA National Resilience Initiative.