The Neuroaesthetics Of Office Refurbishment and Design

Kent and London office refurbishment has dramatically changed over the years. Of course, any changes implemented throughout this time would have been carried out with the idea that it would improve the office environment or increase productivity. Today we know so much more about human behaviour and psychology and how office design can impact businesses and staff in terms of health and wellbeing, which in turn affects morale, mood and office productivity.

In a previous article we touched upon how “Employing Science and Psychology In Kent and London Office Design” can play a vital role in Kent and London office refurbishment, as shown in numerous studies and surveys. In this article we delve a bit deeper and look at how just one aspect of science, Neuroaesthetics, can help us to understand what will work best for a business, in terms of office design, when planning an office refurbishment.

The Look and Feel Of An Office Design

When asked, many people will say office design is just about what feels and looks right for their business office space and although there is more to office design that just looks, what an office looks like can play an important part in whether your office design works well in terms of creating the right mood, in office productivity and on retaining and attracting new staff.

Until recently we could only surmise how office design impacts us psychologically. Today, through scientific research we can show that the way an office is designed can make a significant impression on the brain.

Neuroaesthetics

Neuroaesthetics, a term first coined by Semir Zeki in 1999 and formally recognised in 2022, is the field which uses cognitive neuroscience to understand and explain aesthetic experiences at the neurological level. Although typically applied to art, neuroaesthetics can also be applied to how we visually interact and react to any element or space that we find pleasing (or disagreeable). Being in surroundings that help lift our mood, improves our focus and productivity, and generally has a positive effect on our health and wellbeing can only be good for staff and businesses.

Neuroaesthetics allows us to explore the effect that colours, textures, lighting, space, sounds, biophilia and shape have on our minds. Ensuring neuroaesthetics are addressed throughout an office refurbishment process can help to create a workspace that positively impacts us and makes the working environment one to enjoy rather than endure.

The Science Behind Neuroaesthetics

There have been numerous studies and papers published about neuroscience and how “beauty” is perceived within the context of office space. These include:

MDPI’s article on “The Cognitive-Emotional Design and Study of Architectural Space: A Scoping Review of Neuroarchitecture and Its Precursor Approaches” explains that “Humans respond cognitively and emotionally to the built environment. The modern possibility of recording the neural activity of subjects during exposure to environmental situations, using neuroscientific techniques and virtual reality, provides a promising framework for future design and studies of the built environment.“ The article concludes: “The knowledge offered by neuroarchitecture will help more broadly meet users’ needs. A building might not collapse due to poor cognitive-emotional adaptation, but its users might. Although it will take years to design projects entirely using principles and knowledge derived from neuroscientific explorations of the built environment, today, we can take steps to improve the human cognitive-emotional response in the built architectural environment. This includes modifying existing spaces and improving decision-making for the design of new spaces. The combination of advances in neuroscience and environmental simulation will expand the impact of the new discipline. The next great architects may be those who can embrace, without prejudice, these new possibilities.”

Brainfacts.org “How the Brain Sees Beauty in Buildings” highlights work being done by neuroscientist and director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics, Anjan Chatterje who is studying how “room design evokes specific cognitive and emotional responses.” The article also describes a study carried out by Anjan Chatterjee, Alex Coburn and Adam Weinberger, “The neuroaesthetics of architectural spaces” published by the University of Pennsylvania where participants ventromedial prefrontal cortex were shown to be activated in a Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine when shown 200 images of interiors which “varied by ceiling height, openness, rounded or rectangular shapes, and other features. Participants typically found spaces with high ceilings, rounded shapes, and windows or other openings more beautiful.”

Another online study utilised the same 200 interior images and asked participants to rate them according to 16 different psychological parameters such as beauty, modernity, and comfort. This study found that 3 of the parameters (coherence, how organized a room appears; fascination, how interesting the room is; and hominess, how comfortable one would feel in the space) were also the ones associated with activity in distinct regions of the visual cortex in the Spanish study. Based on this the study concluded that “these seemingly subjective psychological parameters have a biological reality.”

Milan’s Salone del Mobile, A Global Design Neuroaesthetic Experiment

Every April Milan hosts the Salone del Mobile (Furniture Fair) where the top architecture, design communities and furniture designers come together to exhibit.

In 2019 one exhibition was designed using the principles of neuroaesthetics. Created by Ivy Ross, the vice president of hardware design at Google, in collaboration with Scandinavian design firm Muuto Design, Suchi Reddy architect and founder of Reddymade Architecture and the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University “A Space for Being” was devised to explore the connection between design and what “makes us feel at ease” and to demonstrate “how different aesthetic experiences have the potential to impact our wellbeing.”

Ivy Ross explains that the exhibit was “made up of three spaces furnished to look like rooms in a home.” Each of the three rooms were designed to have a distinct “look, feel, scent and sound, complete with unique textures, colors and design elements”. The first room named Essential used warm camel, brown and dark tones with sofas and chairs and soft lighting. Part of the wall featured a commissioned woollen tapestry by Claudy Jongstra. The second room, Vital showcased brighter colours  including orange and green. Beams of light were reflected across the walls. The final room, Transformative included muted colours and the use of steel mirrors and other hard surfaces.

Visitors to the exhibit were asked to wear a specially made wristband, developed by Google, and walk through the rooms, spending 5 minutes per room. They were encouraged to touch and engage with the objects in each room, but they could not talk. The wristband allowed the exhibitors to measure visitor’s biological responses including “heart activity, breathing rate, skin temperature, skin conductivity and motion” in order to capture how each visitor responded to each room and which space made them feel most “at ease.”

Susan Magsamen, the executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University says “Because of noninvasive technologies, we’ve really been able to start to look inside the brain in real time to understand a whole lot more around the way we move in space” as well as how “biophilia, light, color, texture, and sound relate to space.”

As more people enter the field of neuroaesthetics and begin to understand how aesthetic experience can make us feel in terms of the design of a space and why we feel that way we can answer questions like “Why does one room make us anxious where another makes us feel productive or at ease?” Being able to leverage the power of neuroaesthetics through the knowledge gained from exhibits like Milan’s Salone del Mobile to answer these questions and understand how to make spaces more inviting and inspiring to people, will go a long way to positively influencing future office design and refurbishment and improving health and wellbeing.

Given the ever increasing evidence to show that there is a convergence of design and science it’s little wonder that there are now a number of events dedicated to the subject of neuroaesthetics, including the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture conference, the Science in Design summit and Neuroaesthetics for Buildings and Cities. It’s clear that neuroaesthetics is already influencing the future of interior design.

Putting Neuroaesthetics Into Practice In Office Design

Based on neuroaesthetics, we can consider the elements within an office that will help to achieve the desired goals. Some of the many factors to consider include:

Colour

Colour has been shown to have emotional and psychological effects on mood on a subconscious level. There is a great deal of research and information detailing the “psychology” of colour on improving health and well-being. Having the right colours around you can have a calming effect and help you relax, or they can be an excellent way to lift spirits and combat stress. Other colours can be restful and soothe and diffuse anxiety. Some can leave you feeling energised and stimulated.

This is backed up by an article by Naoyuki Osaka “Emotional neuroaesthetics of color experience: Views from single, paired, and complex color combinations” in the Institute of Psychology Chinese Academy of Sciences Journal which monitored the brain activity of participants while they were viewing colour presentations. The data from the study provides further insight into our understanding of what happens when we perceive something as “beautiful” and how colour is perceived by the brain. When beauty is observed it results in an activation of the orbitofrontal cortex and the medial pre-frontal cortex which increases pleasure/reward and remove aversive stimuli and translates it into an emotional like or dislike response e.g., participants found harmonious colours to be a source of comfort.

Light

We know that light affects the brain and is vitally important to mood. In a 2017 study “The impact of daytime light exposures on sleep and mood in office workers” published by the National Sleep Foundation, showed that employees who have more exposure to natural light reported better sleep patterns compared to employees who weren’t exposed to as much natural light. When staff are sleeping better, they are more likely to be more productive.

This is backed up by a number of studies including a study by Rand Health Quarterly “Why Sleep Matters—The Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep” which suggests that insufficient sleep can result in lower productivity and lost ROI and a study looking at “Daylight and the Workplace” conducted by Dr. Alan Hedge, a professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University which also showed that by improving the light quality within a workplace there is an increase in work performance.

According to the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation exposure to light activates regions of the brain that are in control of cognitive performance and are essential for the formation of memories, and the regulation of brain health and mood.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute now believe they have discovered why light has such an impact on mood. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science titled “Luxotonic signals in human prefrontal cortex as a possible substrate for effects of light on mood and cognition” they were able to show, through the use of fMRI that regions of the brain involved in cognitive processing and mood are sensitive to light intensity. They go onto say that “These findings offer a functional link between light exposure and prefrontal cortex-mediated cognitive and affective phenomena.”

Shape

Articles from Forbes “Why Some Shapes Make You Feel Calm And Other Shapes Seem Angry” and Frontiers “Simple Shapes Elicit Different Emotional Responses in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Neurotypical Children and Adults” and the UX Design Collective “Psychology of shapes in Design: how different shapes can affect people behaviour” all touch upon the way in which shape can impact our behaviour.

John Hopkins University who were involved in the Milan Salone del Mobile neuroaesthetic experiment refer to a study by neuroscientist Ed Connor who invited visitors to Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum to view different forms, shapes and curves created by modernist sculptor Jean Arp and choose those they found the most and least pleasing. This study is described as “a foray into a new field known as “neuroaesthetics,” in which brain scientists seek to answer a myriad of questions about how the brain creates or reacts to art”. This work was then utilised when designing the Bloomberg Children’s Center to “inspire, comfort and heal”.

Biophilia

Like the need for light, biophilia (an inborn need to seek connections with nature and other forms of life) is part and parcel of human nature. We need to feel that connection to nature even when we are indoors.

Given that we spend, as much if not more time indoors, than we do outdoors it’s vital for office designs to try to incorporate natural elements e.g.; incorporating plants (in the form of plant walls, living pictures and wall plants, cabinet, container planting and hanging plants) and utilising natural materials like wood and stone in office furniture, flooring, doors and counter tops. Including natural elements in office design can help to create an environment that is not only pleasing to the eye but can also create that sense of harmony and feeling of ease, that is soothing to our brains, and which promotes wellbeing.

This is supported by the science. A team from Penn’s Goddard Lab Center for Neuroaesthetics created a biophilic room to test the idea that nature inspired design could affect cognition and mood. They used plant walls and container plants, along with a natural wooden desk, wood panels, a bamboo ceiling and a rug that was designed with fractal patterns from nature. They found participant mood improved after being in the space.

The Psychology and Neuroscience website’s paper “The Benefits of Biophilia in the Built Environment” lists a number of studies which showed the benefits of biophilia indoors including Ryan Brown and J Clancy’s 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design which found “Biophilic design can reduce stress, improve cognitive function and creativity, improve our well-being and expedite healing” and Judith Heerwagen and Betty Hase’s “Building biophilia: Connecting people to nature in building design”.

Ceiling Height

How “spacious” an interior is observed to be can also determine how beautiful it is deemed to be. Buildings and rooms which appear more spacious e.g., from the space between desks, to the available open spaces to the height of the ceiling, can all impact our perception of the beauty of the space and our enjoyment of it.

This is backed up by research carried out by the Penn Center for Neuroeasthetics at the School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania who found that ceiling height can affect psychological responses to architectural interiors. In their research report “Psychological and neural responses to architectural interiors” they state that “spaces with high ceilings received higher beauty ratings than those with low spaces.” They go onto explain that “Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) results showed that rooms with high ceilings differentially activated neural structures involved in visuospatial attention and exploration, such as the left middle frontal gyrus and left precuneus. These findings indicate that high ceilings increase perceptions of spaciousness and thoughts of freedom, whereas low ceilings are more likely to thoughts of confinement.”

Ergonomics

For many years ergonomics has primarily focussed on the “physical” aspect of ergonomic design to help ensure good posture. We normally associate ergonomics with the design and function of office furniture especially office chairs. However, ergonomics can apply to anything, the environment you work in, the products you interact with and how conducive they are for your health, wellbeing and productivity. In essence how friendly, mentally and physically, is your physical environment?

If someone isn’t comfortable e.g., their chair doesn’t provide the correct support or their desk isn’t at the right height which in turn affects the height of their monitor, they will be uncomfortable and their brain will be more distracted and they will be less able to focus on their work. On the other hand, if your office chair is designed for comfort and efficiency and your desk is setup correctly you are far less likely to suffer any health issues and will be more at ease. Clearly the more your work environment meets your needs and makes you feel good the more likely that your experience will be a positive one.

Control Over Environment

Where staff have an element of control over their office environment, they are more likely to feel positive.

In a National Library of Medicine study “The relative merits of lean, enriched, and empowered offices: an experimental examination of the impact of workspace management strategies on well-being and productivity” which looked at two experiments offices were either “(a) lean, (b) decorated by the experimenter (with plants and art), (c) self-decorated, or (d) self-decorated and then redecorated by the experimenter.” Researchers looked at the impact of the conditions above on “organisational identification” (where employees identify themselves as part of an organisation and its values etc.), the impact on well-being, and productivity which included attention to detail, processing and management of information.

The study found that office space which was decorated had a positive impact on employees. There was a further increase in well-being and productivity where staff were allowed to decorate their own space or have an input into how their office space was decorated. If the space was then redecorated without staff input, the previous positive impact was diminished or eliminated.

Ensuring your office design is right is more than just a gut feeling. Design can impact our perceptions, our mood and productivity. With this in mind finding the right office design company with the right expertise is important when it comes to ensuring your next office refurbishment project is successful. 

JBH Refurbishments, Experts In Office Design and Refurbishment

JBH Refurbishments have over 30+ years experience in office design, office refurbishments and fit outs. We understand what’s required to carry out an office refurbishment and can provide the right expertise for your Kent or London office refurbishment. From your brief, to putting together a project plan, to developing your office design and layout to delivering your office fit out JBH Refurbishments will provide piece of mind. You can contact us on 0333 207 0339 or via our contact page today for a free on-site consultation.


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