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Creating a better place to work

Use new findings in psychology to create spaces where you and your family will thrive

Creating a better place to work

It’s a basic human need to have a space where you feel comfortable, safe and secure. Having a place to rest, refresh and revitalize can help us cope with the extraordinary challenges of farming and the pandemic.

While we can’t control everything in our environments, if we pay attention to what we can control we really can create spaces that are better both for us as individuals and for our work.

For help, Dr. Lindsay McCunn, a professor and researcher in the psychology department at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C., suggests we turn to the rapidly expanding field of environmental psychology, a branch of science that has been studied formally since the 1950s.

Environmental psychology, also known as architectural psychology, is the study of the relationships between people and place, says McCunn. “We’re not operating in a vacuum.”

Light, thermal comfort, noise and aesthetics are just some of the more apparent environmental factors that can influence our mental and physical well-being, says McCunn. Other well-being needs include privacy and refuge (time to be alone), opportunities for spontaneous social interaction, and nature access.

Country Guide reached out to McCunn and Chicago environmental design psychologist Dr. Sally Augustin for their take-aways on how neuroscience can be applied to create places where people will thrive. Through her consulting firm, Design with Science, Augustin aims to create spaces — in homes, offices, schools, stores and health care facilities — that optimize user well-being and also enhance performance.

Using what we know about neuroscience, we can create environments that more effectively meet our needs, says Augustin. When we are in a positive mood, we think more broadly, have better problem-solving and creative-thinking skills, and get along better with others. Having a sense of control over our environment is fundamental.

If we want our homes to be havens where we feel very comfortable and can recharge, we can choose interior design features based on design science rather than what’s simply fashionable, says Augustin. With the pandemic, our homes are being asked to do triple duty with more family members working and schooling from home. Opportunities for recreation and socializing outside the home have been limited and may be slow to rebound.

Sensory inputs such as colours, textures, smells and shapes flow to our brains through sensory channels and combine to create a mood, says Augustin. The influence that a colour has on us depends on its hue, saturation and lightness/brightness. Hue refers to the wavelength such as blue or green. Saturation is the intensity where the most intense version of a colour is fully saturated and a more muted shade is less saturated. Finally, the lightness or brightness refers to the amount of white in a colour.

Augustin gives an example of how to apply colour theory in selecting the paint colour for the walls of an office. “I’d go with a not very saturated, but relatively bright green, say a sage green with lots of white mixed into it,” she says. “That creates the right emotional state for knowledge work-type thinking and generally for a relaxed positive mood. Green has been tied to enhanced creative thinking.”

Plus, by choosing a lighter colour for the walls, the space will seem a little larger than it actually is, which is generally a good thing, she adds.

When it comes to patterns in upholstery or drape fabrics, choose straight lines and geometric patterns to increase energy levels while curvy lines in patterns will have a more soothing effect.

We should stick to a few co-ordinated colours and no more than one or two patterns to strike a balance when it comes to visual complexity, says Augustin. “Our senses have developed for a happy medium.”

Augustin offers some additional design tips:

  • Clutter should be minimized. Use opaque cupboard doors to keep clutter from view.
  • Souvenirs, personal photographs or other meaningful items on display promote positive well-being, but these should be limited to a few items to avoid visual complexity. You can rotate these every month or so to cycle through your entire collection.
  • Woodgrain is relaxing but should be limited to about half of visible surfaces.
  • Lighting is an important factor to consider in room design. Warm light is great for creativity and relaxation while cooler light has been associated with concentration and alertness. You can integrate lighting into different areas by having lamps with both cooler and warmer light bulbs depending on how you are using the space.
  • Natural light “does great things for us… It’s like magic medicine,” Augustin says. When possible, maximize views of natural landscapes by leaving curtains open.
  • Views of nature, whether through a window, in a photograph or painting, can calm and refresh us. Likewise, having a few green leafy plants is calming and refreshing, and it enhances creativity.
  • Nature sounds such as the sounds of gently rustling leaves, burbling brooks or birdsong also promote well-being. When it’s not possible to enjoy nature sounds through open windows, you can use an online streaming service instead.
  • Scents can also be used to boost mood. Lavender is relaxing while lemon has been shown to enhance concentration.
  • When our brains are tired, viewing a campfire, fish tank or nature scene provides mental refreshment and stress reduction. Even photographs or art depicting rolling meadows, trees or lakes will help rebuild cognitive energy.

A better workspace

Psychology design concepts can also be applied to create optimal work spaces. When people must work in environments that don’t meet their needs and employees don’t thrive, it takes the joy out of work and reduces productivity, explains McCunn.

When planning a workspace, McCunn recommends that individual preferences along with how the space is to be used be taken into consideration. Introverts tend to have a higher need for privacy and find it difficult to work in an open concept environment, for example.

Other considerations include whether communal spaces are needed for social interaction or work collaboration. What level of noise is tolerated?

The soundscape also comes into play in workspaces. Gentle nature (meadow) sounds or white noise tend to be the best for working, says Augustin. Music, even when we pick it out ourselves, tends to be distracting.

The same principles apply to create inviting spaces in stores and farm markets. Warm colours make a space feel warmer, says Augustin. “People seen in front of warm-coloured surfaces are perceived as friendlier.”

Designs that incorporate woodgrain, natural light, diffuse artificial light and curvier lines create a welcoming space, she adds, while the use of straight lines such as on display cases projects a sense of efficiency.

If you are dissatisfied with your living or work spaces, McCunn encourages people to consider their needs and to make changes, where possible, to their environments. Even small changes can make a difference in stress levels.

McCunn says it starts with self-knowledge. Journal, draw or sit quietly and contemplate your optimal situation. Ask yourself questions such as: Where would you rather be? What would make you feel more comfortable? Are there small, simple strategies to get something similar? “Start plotting ways to get what you’re missing.”


  • Designology: How to Find Your PlaceType & Align Your Life with Design (2019) by Dr. Sally Augustin
  • Social Design: Creating Buildings with People in Mind (1983) by Robert Sommer
  • Inquiry by Design: Environment Behaviour Neuroscience in Architecture Interiors (2006) by John Zeisel

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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