|■_ Every day, our surroundings affect aspects of our moods, personality, and health.|
|■_ If we don’t recognize these effects, we’ll always be at the mercy of our spaces.|
|■_ Each of us holds the power to transform our environment to support well-being.|
Libraries make you feel smarter. Gyms make you feel healthier. Airports make you feel nervous—or excited, depending on how long the security line is that day.
All of these experiences add up over time. And what happens? More than just shaping our mood, they shape who we become.
Whether or not we realize it, architecture is quietly changing each of our lives every day. It guides our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and beliefs. It affects our health, and it changes what we pay attention to. For example:
- Hospital patients in darker rooms have been shown to use more painkillers, report more stress, and have higher mortality rates.
- Schools with poor space layouts can stunt a child’s cognitive development by 25%.
- Sitting in stressful rush hour traffic has been shown to increase rates of nighttime domestic violence by up to 9%.
This runs counter to how we typically think of physical space.
Normally, we see it as the backdrop to our lives—pretty scenery, but nothing more. But a mountain of research makes it clear: Life could be a whole lot better if we saw architecture’s transformative power for what it really is, and began designing the world to accommodate that power.
How architecture works
Everyone has a stake in bringing better design to the world because it affects every single one of us. At home, at work, and throughout daily life, how your surroundings are laid out can nudge you in one direction or another.
For example, you may have heard by now that grocery stores will stock high-margin foods on shelves closer to your eye level (and your child’s eye level), since people usually buy the first item they see. But did you know that grocery stores are also known to play music over the loudspeaker that is set to a tempo that matches your walking speed with a shopping cart? (Generally, it’s pretty uptempo.)
That’s just one example. The effects are everywhere.
Rooms with lower ceilings have been shown to make you more focused, while rooms with higher ceilings make you more creative. Open-plan offices cause employees to take more sick days. Schools with cleaner air see lower rates of asthma-related absenteeism. Patients disclose more information to their doctor when they feel a greater sense of privacy.
The list goes on.
While we don’t hold the power to change all of these spaces on our own, the good news is that once you realize the power architecture holds, you can start doing something about it.
How to take action
Unless you’re a designer, you probably have control over just a handful of spaces: the various rooms in your home, your work space, and maybe a trusting loved one’s home. In these cases, what’s important for creating an effective design is to start by looking within.
Ask yourself a simple question: What do I need from this space? Consider how you’ll use the space, and be specific about the details. Walk yourself through a typical day in that space, taking note of the problems you solve and the pain points you encounter. Also consider how you’d like to use the space, or how the space could nudge you toward the behaviors you want.
For instance, if you want to redesign your office, think about the kind of work you do in a typical day or week. Knowing what we know about ceiling height, is your office better suited to creative thinking or focused work? If it has a low ceiling, but you need to brainstorm now and then, try finding a roomier space for those tasks—or go for a walk during that time.
These kinds of changes may feel small, but they add up to a space that is perfectly designed to suit your needs. This is how architecture works to change your life.
Even in places where you don’t have as much agency, like your local supermarket, you can use your needs as the north star. You can notice how the market is designed around your best or worst interests. And instead of criss-crossing the aisles, you can feel assured you’re shopping more intentionally.
Action starts with awareness
Some places make us feel smarter or healthier, and some places make us miserable. But every place is exerting at least some influence on us. Architecture is the container for our experiences, and how we shape that container is how we shape our experiences, and therefore our lives.
You won’t always be able to redesign your local library or other public spaces, but awareness is the first step. As you start noticing when design is holding you back, you can start to lean in and take control when you see the opportunity.
The anthropologist David Graeber said, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
He’s right. Each of us has a responsibility—to ourselves and others—to start recognize how architecture works on us, and make the world a better place. And the beautiful part is, we all have the power to do it.