We typically don’t view design as a matter of life or death. Yet there’s a case that better design could save thousands of lives on our roads.
Lawyers handling motorcycle accidents can attest to the severity of financial damages and the difficulty involved in recovery. Far worse than that is the fate awaiting 5,000 motorcyclists annually: the national annual fatality rate. Throw in pedestrians, bicyclists, and vehicle occupants, and the number exceeds 30,000.
The messaging we receive is constant: drive safely, don’t drink, don’t be distracted. These things certainly matter, but the emphasis places the responsibility solely on motorists’ shoulders.
Comparison to traffic statistics among our peer countries belies the mistake. Our fatality rates are 3-4 times higher, but we aren’t significantly worse motorists. What we have are poorly designed roads.
Our environment influences our behavior. If road designers favored vulnerable users and urban planners designed compact communities, many accidents could be prevented.
And if the design can easily save lives, why can’t it be applied to drive desired behaviors in our workplaces?
Studying environmental influences
You’re probably aware of the effects that certain environments can have on your mood. Green spaces are known to offer benefits to our physical and mental health. A quiet library is more conducive to studying and retaining information.
The architects and designers responsible for creating built environments were certainly aware of these effects. Surprisingly, though, this field of study, known as environmental psychology, is relatively underdeveloped.
For obvious reasons, designers are more deliberate when it comes to features that encourage safety behaviors. In the previous example of roads, designers in the Netherlands used curves, medians, bike lanes, and roundabouts to subconsciously nudge motorists towards lower speeds. Their roads became self-explanatory in terms of safety, without needing speed limits or police interventions.
However, a road is a public space with minimal application. Whether in a vehicle, on a bike, or on foot, everybody is there to get to a destination. There really aren’t many factors to consider aside from route, speed, safety, and efficiency.
Environmental psychologists know that several factors in the built environment can influence our attitudes and actions.
The ease of movement in an office can facilitate a sense of social connectedness or hinder it. This underlies the debate surrounding open office plans versus rigid, cubicle-based layouts.
Cool, task lighting is known to facilitate concentration and critical thinking. Warm lighting makes spaces seem more comfortable and can encourage communication.
Other factors to consider include the use of color, the geometry and balance within a space, the use of art objects or other forms of decor, ventilation, etc.
But human beings are complex subjects. Within any organization, their individual needs and tasks will vary. The built environment is far more fixed, and once you’ve committed to a design, many aspects will be difficult to change.
You can think about workplace design in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Every workplace probably covers the basics, such as sanitation, shelter, and having a place to eat. Most also ensure that workers are equipped with the necessary tools to do their jobs safely.
As you go higher up the hierarchy, only then does design begin to tackle issues of well-being: comfort, social interactions, and the need for focus or collaboration.
A soft science
Perhaps the biggest reason why environmental psychology is not more widely applied is the current lack of evidence-based practice.
Just like its parent discipline of psychology, this field attempts to understand human behavior but can fail to account for factors such as cultural biases or introversion versus extraversion. Both require better data-driven methods to lend weight to their practitioners’ conclusions.
For the time being, then, architects and interior designers often rely on their personal experience, anecdotal evidence, and overall know-how to create workplace environments conducive to desired behaviors.
The benefits may be real, but as it’s a soft science, your mileage will vary with the skill of the designer you’re consulting. Without data, it’s harder to justify the investment.
Unless you have a very specific use case, such as healthcare facilities or entertainment venues, you may not have a dominant behavior to prioritize via design cues. You may need to profile your team and gauge their personalities to determine if they will respond as expected.
Unlike roads, workplaces are shared spaces where people often perform diverse functions. Design’s potential to ensure safety only accounts for a slice of the pyramid of needs.
Until the data can conclusively link a specific design element to desired behaviors, it might be simpler and more effective to offer your people the choice of where to work.
Design a workplace that’s reasonably conducive to productivity. If they find a home office or co-working space that suits their needs better, having those options will benefit everyone.