The Health Benefits of Beautiful Design

Design

The Health Benefits of Beautiful Design

national gallery interior

Beauty Has Now Been Scientifically Linked to Well-Being.

My impulse to be an architect was based solely on one thing—increasing beauty in the world.  From early childhood, I intuitively understood that beauty is somehow important to well-being, and I was curious about why our built environment turned out to be sometimes beautiful and sometimes ugly.

These interests shaped my architecture career.  At the same time, my interest in well-being grew to studying philosophy, the addition of a yoga practice, and eventually to teaching yoga and promoting the practical benefits of awakening to our true selves.  Even with these other interests, I have still maintained that our external environment is an important contributor to our well-being. 

Beauty Triggers the Relaxation Response and Spacious Awareness.

sunset

Most of us have been transported to a place of spacious awareness by a beautiful sunset or by standing at the edge of a vast ocean.  Some of us have been moved by a beautiful piazza in an ancient city, the interior of a soaring cathedral, or the calming beauty of a well-designed spa.  What I now find exciting about design is that scientist are increasingly able to measure the physiological and neuro-scientific benefits of experiencing beauty, and are finding that the physical things we use, the buildings we occupy, and the cities we live in can be designed, not only reduce stress, but to contribute to our healing and well-being.

View Through a Window Influences Recovery from Surgery.

windows

In 1984, Roger S. Ulrich published his study “View through a window may influence recovery from surgery.”  In this study, Ulrich compared patients in a hospital that had two window views—one of a brick wall, and one of a grove of trees.  He found that patients with the tree view had a one day shorter recovery period, had more positive evaluations from nurses, took fewer pain medications, and had less postsurgical complications. 

Ulrich’s more recent studies have focused on using architectural design in mental health treatment to reduce prevalent acts of violence.  He has found that providing shared spaces with movable seating (such as in waiting rooms) gives patients a sense of being able to control their environment and interactions with other.  Sound absorbing surfaces reduce noise and stress, and designs that allow for more natural light promote calming effects.

Numerous other studies continue to map the positive effects of beauty.  These have been cleverly summarized by Neuroscience Professor Irving Biederman’s statement, “obviously looking at a beautiful view does something to the brain, why else would we pay hundreds of dollars more for a hotel with a beautiful view?” These questions and studies have given rise to the field of environmental psychology, which studies the interplay between humans and their surroundings.

Make it Easy on Users to Reduce Their Stress.

One area of architecture where environmental psychology has been used extensively is in hospital design.   The result has been to place emphasis on the patient experience rather than treatment efficiency.  Efforts are now being made to create designs that increase feelings of love and comfort, reduce stress responses, and create and overall environment designed specifically to promote healing.  The results have been not only improvements in patient recovery, but less staff sick days. 

One of the primary areas of focus in environmental psychology has been in ease of navigation.  Some architects have traditionally argued that people adapt to architecture and city forms, a sort of “anything goes and people will get used to it” attitude.  These architects tend to dismiss formal space planning as “done before”, boring, and not inventive or new. 

Evidence is mounting against this attitude.  I am thankful for this.  I spent from 10 years old to 12 years old in a high design school with all sorts of crazy paths that many of today’s architects would praise as interesting, inspiring, and unusual.  To me as a 10 year old child, they led to at least 6 months of stress, worrying about getting lost, and being late for class, also known as the “maze effect”. 

Esther Sternberg has eloquently discussed the maze effect using the example of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  Harry Potter in the maze with the clock ticking is a perfect example of the stress response produced by a maze, with multiple decision points, dead ends, and possible dangers.  The same effect is produced in poorly designed airports, when we are trying to find our way and not miss a flight, or in hospitals when trying to find a sick loved one, or as patients confused about where to go for treatment.  Poor design can raise very primal fears.

Labyrinth at Schofiel
Labyrinth at Schofiel

At the opposite end of the spectrum to the maze is the labyrinth.  Labyrinths were traditionally created to provide an opportunity for walking meditation.  In a labyrinth, one can see where to go, the path is clear and is usually symmetrical, and most times, there is a place to pause and reflect or meditate.  These characteristics are aspirations in the formalistic space planning which we used extensively in my work with Michael Graves & Associates.  Through design we tried to create as quickly as possible an understanding of place.  In buildings, this meant a clearly defined entry and circulation that was as simple as possible so that pathways could be understood quickly and intuitively.  As quickly as possible, we wanted the user to not even have to think about navigation.  Research is now showing that this type of design reduces the stress response.  Additionally these spaces can promote a positive healing response if the spaces are made to feel comfortable through implementing golden section proportions, earthy textures and colors, and by introducing water.

Courthouse floor plan from my time at MGA, designed for ease of navigation
Courthouse floor plan from my time at MGA, designed for ease of navigation

The means by which our environments contribute to our healing is through stimulation of our brain’s anti-pain pathways, and by releasing endorphins and dopamine.  The effects of these can be as powerful as many prescription drugs.  The effects are amplified when combined with yoga, meditation, a supportive community, and a healthy diet.  All of these support the immune system in keeping us healthy and improve the connection between body and place.

Designing for All the Senses Provides the Biggest Health Benefits.

A holistic approach to design which incorporates thinking about all the senses will increase the healing benefits of any design.  Everything from positive smells to the careful introduction of colors, to the introduction and control of natural light should be considered. 

Sound is also of critical importance.  Not too long ago, I lived in a convenient apartment in downtown Washington DC.  The apartment was near a hospital and on a top floor surrounded by mechanical units.  Noise levels were loud, almost beyond belief.  The sounds negatively affected my sleep patterns, my health, and my overall quality of life.  Studies have also shown that even when sound levels are not particularly loud, if the combination of sounds adds up to a minor chord, it has a negative effect on people’s moods.

Imagining Beautiful Places Provides Similar Health Benefits to Visiting Beautiful Places.

We can’t always control our external environment, but we do have control of internal visualization.  As a teenager, I created my own beautiful relaxation space.  It was under a tree in a meadow, next to a stream and surrounded by snow-capped mountains.  These internal places, vividly imagined, have been shown to have calming and healing effects nearly as beneficial as actual places.  Richard Davidson has suggested that this form of meditation which includes visualization can be thought of as a form of medicine.

It’s Time to Focus on Beauty When Designing.

We are still in the early stages of our understanding of the effects of beauty on our mood and our health.  Many of us have intuitively understood that there are benefits, but I am excited about the scientific studies which will help clarify the benefits of beautiful design and perhaps provide data which will help refine our design decisions in urban design, architecture, and product design to make our world both more beautiful and increasingly healthy.

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Chris Brown

Chris has been practicing both yoga and architecture for over 15 years. He combines them in his Yoga and Design for Conscious Living blog, and believes that the essence of yoga is found in the quality of the relationships we build with ourselves, others, and the world.

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