Designing Mindful Spaces: Seven Concepts that Support Mental Wellbeing

Designers have a responsibility to create environments that meet a client’s needs. Moreover, we possess a remarkable opportunity to exceed design standards by offering solutions that foster mental well-being.
2023 Design for Mental Wellbeing Web

There are many approaches to supporting mental well-being, and extensive research affirms the profound influence of our physical surroundings on our overall life experiences. Leading the Wellness Market at Bergmeyer, Principal Mare Weiss passionately advocates for the choices that enhance the health and well-being of both clients and the ultimate users of a space.

As a wrap-up to Mental Health Awareness Month, Mare reflects on her extensive experiences in designing for wellness, highlighting the significant impact that certain design decisions can have on our health and well-being.

On a personal level, there are days when I deviate from my usual routines: skipping the gym, leaving my bed unmade, or leaving dirty dishes in the sink overnight. When I miss out on the habits that help me maintain my happiness and productivity, such as regular exercise or keeping a tidy home, I know this will negatively affect me and how I may feel throughout my day. Recognizing how these simple stressors impact my life, I deeply value the importance of an empathetic design approach for others and how our design decisions can help alleviate stress and promote well-being.

Here are some overarching concepts to consider when prioritizing mental well-being in design.

Wellness is More than a Buzzword

The concept of “Wellness” has become prevalent across various markets and is frequently used as a marketing strategy. However, it is crucial to recognize the need for genuinely addressing our health and mental well-being on all fronts.

According to a study funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Americans, on average, spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, [1] where the concentrations of some pollutants are often 2 to 5 times higher than typical outdoor concentrations" [2].

Concerns about the potential impact of our indoor air quality are raised in this study, such as: “Indoor concentrations of some pollutants have increased in recent decades due to such factors as energy-efficient building construction (when it lacks sufficient mechanical ventilation to ensure adequate air exchange) and increased use of synthetic building materials, furnishings, personal care products, pesticides, and household cleaners. The effects of some indoor air pollutants on human health have also been well established (“e.g., studies on radon, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, Legionella bacterium”). Still, the study noted that the scientific understanding of some indoor air quality issues continues to evolve. Health effects associated with indoor air pollutants include:

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Headaches, dizziness, and fatigue
  • Respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer

Designers are responsible for crafting environments that cater to their client’s needs. We also have the unique opportunity to surpass conventional standards by offering holistic options that promote health and wellness. Designing for wellness is never a one size fits all experience, especially when considering how an indoor experience can impact our physical health and mental well-being. Each project requires a unique approach, and working with a knowledgeable team that can guide the journey is beneficial.

Boston Dynamics 2020 AG375 169

Boston Dynamics’ corporate headquarters was designed with employee health and well-being in mind by providing opportunities for physical activity, views of the outdoors, and daylighting. In addition to stairways that are more visible than elevators, thus making them the primary mode of travel between floors, the space is equipped with a private fitness area and access to the shared fitness area provided by the building.

The Happiness Factor

Happiness is an essential state of mind that is frequently underestimated when it comes to emotions. The statistics on depression are one of the reasons why happiness is an important factor to consider in designing a space. Depression is prevalent among one in ten Americans and almost one in five adolescents and young adults, as noted in a recent report conducted at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and City University of New York. [3]

As a driver, happiness and a more positive outlook can lead to improvements in most scenarios – enhanced productivity in the workplace, academic achievements of students, and overall quality of life for everyone. This chain reaction reaches far and wide, influencing the economy through heightened consumer spending and business growth, among many other areas.

A passage that has stuck with me for a while came from the article “Aesthetics and Well-Being: How Interior Design Affects Your Happiness” [4]. In it, author Chloe Taylor writes,

“Although the bond between interior design and our emotions has gained much attention in the last decade, this form of environmental psychology exists for thousands of years now – the Indian Vastu Shastra, the Chinese Feng Shui, etc. Because of the rise of neuroscience, scientists are doing plenty of research on this topic and finding the most incredible results. They have shown the ability of interior design elements to evoke a positive or negative emotional response in people. These findings open the door to design spaces that consciously manipulate decorative elements with the goal of encouraging creativity, peace, and happiness.”

Design holds the power to exert a significant impact on this reaction. At the beginning of a project, my team and I begin the first step: strategizing the best approach. We need to understand the needs and desires of our clients as well as what their clients' expected needs are from the intended space. Then, we jump into the vital process of designing a space that caters to their emotional well-being and provides a fulfilling experiential journey.

Truly LA 34323

At Truly LA, we aimed to craft an experience that leaves a lasting impression, a place where memories are made. Our goal was to establish a platform that amplifies the community and encourages originality and artistic expression. With a vision of empowering others towards a brighter future, we set out to design a space that reflects the essence of the brand and brings joy to the consumers of Truly. Bold colors and unexpected elements were meticulously incorporated, creating a captivating environment that embraces the brand’s identity and delights those who indulge in its offerings.

Lighting and Mood

Lighting can affect our moods and emotions and is essential in regulating our circadian rhythms, the body's natural sleep-wake cycle. Properly designed lighting can help to synchronize our internal clock with the outside world and promote better sleep and overall health.

Light can also have an impact on our mental health. Poorly lit spaces can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety, while well-lit areas can positively affect our mood and overall well-being. Bright, warm light is often associated with evoking positive emotions, while cool lighting may have the ability to do the exact opposite. A well-lit space or windows that let in natural light can help people feel more awake and alert, thus improving productivity and focus.

Designing a space with the right level and quality of artificial and natural light can create a positive, productive, uplifting atmosphere.

Boston Pro Shop 2020 CP02 003

The Boston ProShop powered by ’47 was designed to strengthen the bond between fans and the teams that play the games they love. The lighting design plays a big part in creating this connection. The shop’s environmental lighting scheme is programmed to indicate milestone game updates like game time, half-time, game wins, and real-time scoring during games.

Design for Comfort

Feeling physically comfortable in a space generally results in a decrease in tension and anxiety. Comfortable furniture, ambient temperature, and adequate ventilation all contribute to a pleasant environment. Designing for optimal well-being can improve focus and concentration since people are less likely to be distracted by physical discomfort or environmental factors that may detract their attention. For example, ergonomic furniture can help to prevent physical strain and injury, while proper lighting can reduce eye strain and headaches.

By creating physically comfortable spaces, designers can help reduce stress levels, enhance focus and concentration, foster positive emotions, and support overall physical health. If we prioritize elements that promote comfort, we can better serve the well-being of the intended users’ individual experience.

Community Center at Mount Holyoke College OO807 138

Designed to LEED Silver standards, the reimagined Community Center at Mount Holyoke College features energy-efficient systems, including waste stream management and solar hot water generation. Thoughtful design features for the students include an array of spaces and seating types to accommodate both independent moments and opportunities to come together and connect with their peers. Combined with the variety of vibrant and ever-changing co-curricular and social activities, the Community Center is critical in strengthening the sense of community and facilitating the creative collisions vital to students.

Flexibility and Control

Designing a space that gives people some control over their environment allows them to feel confident, relaxed, and in control of their surroundings. For example, setting up thermostat zones can improve employee or patient experiences in an office by allowing for microenvironments that account for the comfort levels of different people.

Furniture selections can also significantly affect our mental and physical health. Standing desks are an excellent addition to workstations as they can improve posture, circulation, and comfort as people can sit or stand. Studies have also linked these flexible workstations to cancer prevention since excessive sitting can raise our risk of multiple cancer types. Offering a range of seating types and places to sit and work isn't just a matter of comfort, but more importantly, health.

One of the design trends that environmental psychologist Stephani Robson has been examining for over a decade is how hospitality spaces can help alleviate anxiety. ArchDaily published, “In her 2008 study, she found that people who were more anxious chose to sit next to walls, corners, or partitions, giving the individual a sense of control over the environment. Robson has seen an increase in intimate, partitioned, and quiet spaces in restaurants and hotel lobbies, as a result of external factors” [5].

Providing people with control over their environment empowers them to shape a space to their unique needs and preferences, resulting in improved productivity and engagement. Design that focuses on empowering individuals has the potential to reduce stress levels, uplift mood, and contribute to overall well-being. By emphasizing customization, we can create environments that encourage a sense of ownership, enabling others to thrive.

Boston Beer Office 2021 AG391 210

The design for Boston Beer Company's reimagined workplace took employee health and well-being into serious consideration. Purposeful design selections included: maximizing the amount of daylight that entered the workspace, water stations spaced out to allow employees to stretch their legs as they walked to get water, desks featuring a sit-to-stand function to allow for changes of position while working, and a Peloton Room set up in the office.

Bring Nature In

Exposure to natural elements such as greenery, natural light, and water is known to help reduce stress levels and mental fatigue. Research has shown that spending time in nature or even looking at images of nature can have a calming effect on the mind and body, improving mood and emotional well-being. Spending time outdoors has been shown to boost positive emotions, reduce negative feelings, and improve overall life satisfaction. Similar studies further emphasize the value time outdoors can have on stimulating creativity, enhancing cognitive function, helping to restore attention, and improving focus. Biophilic design is an evolving movement that addresses the need for human connection to nature by incorporating elements like natural light, greenery, Earth color palettes, and art inspired by nature into indoor spaces.

In a study published by the National Library of Medicine titled “Associations between Nature Exposure and Health: A Review of the Evidence” [6], reference to the “biophilia hypothesis” states that “…humans have evolved with nature to have an affinity for nature” [7]. Building on this concept, two major theories—Attention Restoration Theory and Stress Reduction Theory—have provided insight into the mechanisms through which spending time in nature might affect human health.” For example, “The Stress Reduction Theory (SRT) describes how spending time in nature might influence feelings or emotions by activating the parasympathetic nervous system to reduce stress and autonomic arousal because of people’s innate connection to the natural world” [8,9].

By bringing nature into our workplaces, schools, clinics, and other places we spend a significant amount of our time, everyone can benefit from the positive impacts. The presence of natural elements enhances the aesthetic appeal and contributes to our humanistic needs with improved well-being and a sense of connection to the natural world in which we live, essentially creating desirable environments to better connect us all.

Cameo Amenity 2

Cameo’s hospitality-focused community was created in collaboration with Toll Brothers Apartment Living. Amenities offered focus on health and wellbeing, including a two-story fitness center, spin and yoga studios, outside fitness lawn, pool, a juice bar and refreshment area, a gear garage, a quiet lounge, and a pet spa for furry family members. The landscape's purposeful design and furniture selection support the dichotomy between the intimate zones within the surrounding social atmosphere. A connection between the indoors and outdoors is maintained throughout Cameo, taking full advantage of Southern California’s sunshine and beautiful weather.

Psychology of a Space

The way a space is perceived can have a significant impact on mental well-being. Elements such as color, lighting, and layout can affect how people feel psychologically in an area and influence their behavior.

Design can be influential in creating a more inviting space and in offering solutions for social challenges. One example of the importance of understanding the psychology behind the design is our work with our client Superette, specifically on their second shop in Toronto's Summerhill neighborhood. We collaborated with their design team to take their playful and lighthearted concept to the next level, elevate the overall customer journey, and further destigmatize the cannabis shopping experience. Design choices like creating an entry experience merchandised with quirky faux "Superette" brand products allowed us to adhere to the sight-line regulations blocking views into the shop while making a playfully branded moment. Other purposeful design choices include baskets at the entrance that offer customers a color choice indicating the degree of help they’d prefer or are comfortable with, allowing the customer to drive their shopping experience their way, as well as a "flower" wall where customers can smell the various strains available for sale through votives integrated with the faux flowers that truly tap into our humanistic senses.

Designers can create spaces promoting positive psychological benefits by understanding the interplay between perception, comfort, attention, emotion, and behavior to the overall impact on one’s mental health.

Superette 39 D6 A6903 Summer Hill K Rocca

The Takeaway

Designing a built environment through a wellness lens undeniably creates favorable opportunities for the user’s experience that can profoundly influence our overall behavior. After a project is finished, conducting a post-occupancy assessment becomes essential in evaluating if the space designed has effectively fulfilled a client's requirements and is an invaluable opportunity to gather feedback by identifying strengths and areas of improvement moving forward.

Through wellness design, we not only have the ability – but some may argue – we have the responsibility to do our part to support others and encourage happier and healthier experiences in the spaces we create.

References

[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Indoor Air Quality: What are the trends in indoor air quality and their effects on human health?” 1989. Report to Congress on indoor air quality: Volume 2. EPA/400/1-89/001C. Washington, DC.

[2] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Indoor Air Quality: What are the trends in indoor air quality and their effects on human health?” 1987. The total exposure assessment methodology (TEAM) study: Summary and analysis. EPA/600/6-87/002a. Washington, DC.

[3] Columbia University Irving Medical Center; The Mailman School of Public Health, “Nearly One in Ten Americans Reports Having Depression,” published on September 19, 2022

[4] Psychology Tomorrow Magazine, “Aesthetics and Well-Being: How Interior Design Affects Your Happiness” by Chloe Taylor, published July 2, 2016.

[5] Arch Daily, “How Can Architects Combat Anxiety with Interior Spaces,” by Dima Stouhi, published on October 16, 2019. A 2008 study by Stephani Robson cited within the article.

[6] National Library of Medicine, “Associations between Nature Exposure and Health: A Review of the Evidence” Int J Environ Res Public Health. > PMC8125471 2021 May; 18(9): 4790. Published online 2021 Apr 30. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18094790

[7] Kellert S.R., Wilson E.O. The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press; Washington, DC, USA: 1995. [Google Scholar]

[8] Ulrich R.S. View through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery. Science. 1984;224:420–421. doi: 10.1126/science.6143402. [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]

[9] Ulrich R.S., Simons R.F., Losito B.D., Fiorito E., Miles M.A., Zelson M. Stress Recovery during Exposure to Natural and Urban Environments. J. Environ. Psychol. 1991;11:201–230. doi: 10.1016/S0272-4944(05)80184-7. [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]

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