The spaces we move through, work and live in can have strong invisible and subconscious affects on how we feel, act and react. For example, in an airport, the tile patterns, signage, angle of desks, sizes of doorways and lighting can all subconsciously lead people in certain directions, making it harder to get lost and easier to find our gate. Or more likely to buy a snack. We aren't even consciously aware of these forces, and yet they exist. As designers we have the opportunity to shape how people experience the world around them.
One of these subconscious forces is touch. How something physically feels can impact how people interact with each other. It turns out, according to a 2010 study, that the qualities of an object, whether it is heavy or light, hard or soft, will correspondingly influence their judgments toward a person. If someone is holding a heavy clipboard and talking with someone, they will view that person as more serious. Rough surfaces can make people seem more judgmental and harsh. Sitting in a wooden chair also seemed to make people more rigid during negotiations.
Another study in 2008 found that people holding a warm beverage will rate strangers as being warmer, more caring and more generous. According to Josh Ackerman, an evolutionary psychologist at MIT's Sloan School of Management, "How our physical body interacts with the world is fundamentally connected to our thinking."
One last study to mention, published in 2013, found that we unconsciously have a calming reaction when touching a plant. Maybe we ought to make a fabric that feels like a plant. :)
Whether you are designing a room, a sofa, a book or a coffee table, there are ways to influence how people through your design. Is it heavy, light, soft, rough, bright, warm, cool, comfy, stiff, etc...? The totality of all those little decisions can have strong subconscious effects on how people feel and interact with each other while using that space or object.
For me at least, these are decisions that I am making without consciously thinking about it. I think though, that being consciously aware of how things affect us while creating a design, or writing out the feelings or moods you are trying to evoke prior to designing is a helpful exercise. It can act as a framework and help guide decisions of what you want to accomplish in your design.
The idea that our brains and bodies are interconnected and not something like separate computer programs is actually a fairly recent idea (at least in western culture). The belief that our bodies had an impact on our thinking didn't start to be questioned and rethought until the 1970's. Traditionally, it was thought that all of our actions started in the brain, things were computed and then our body performed an action. We are now learning that it is a much more fluid relationship between our brains and bodies.
The trick to all of this, however, is that these "secret" things work only if we are unaware of them. If you tell people these things, then they are conscious of it and the effect goes away. How can you incorporate these ideas in the spaces you design? Or do you do it already? Leave a comment and let us all know!