Back to Insights

We spend roughly 90% of our lives indoors. Studies suggest that 90% of our thoughts are unconscious. So, this begs the question: Does the quality of a space influence cognition? The answer, as you might imagine, is yes. The three main ways through which space can affect our thinking are color, height, and light.

Color

We’ve all heard about the ability of color to affect our mood. Reds energize, blues and greens are calming and relaxing, yellows help creativity, and so on. But you may be surprised to learn that the color of the space you are in can impact your thinking.

In 2009, psychologists at the University of British Columbia set up an experiment to see how color can influence imagination. They recruited six hundred research subjects and performed a series of basic cognitive tests against red, blue, or neutral backgrounds. What they discovered was pretty impressive.

When subjects were tested with the red background, they performed much better with tasks that required accuracy and attention to detail. Scientists believe this is because we are conditioned to associate red with danger, which makes you much more alert and vigilant.

These same subjects, when tested with the blue background, performed much better with tasks that required more imagination and creativity. In fact, subjects were able to come up with twice as many creative solutions to their tasks in the blue condition than they were in the red. Scientists believe that this is because blue reminds us of open skies and the expansive ocean. It soothes our mind and allows us to think more openly about what is possible rather than what is right in front of us.

Height

We all tend to prefer big spaces. We like big, tall ceilings in our living rooms, vaulted ceilings in our bedrooms, and big corner offices. So, Joan Meyers-Levy conducted an experiment at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in which she examined how ceiling height impacts the way people think, feel, and act. The idea for the experiment came to her while she reflected on how boarding a flight affected her mood.

In her study, participants were asked to complete a series of different tasks. Some required focus and attention to detail while others relied more on abstract thinking. She found that subjects placed in a room with a higher ceiling were able to complete tasks requiring abstract thinking much faster. Test subjects in the room with the lower ceiling performed better on tasks that required more focus and attention to detail.

Light

The visual environment and access to natural light are also extremely important to occupants’ mental health and performance.

A famous study, by social scientist Robert Ulrich, investigated the effects that windows and natural light had on patients recovering from the same type of surgery. The setting for the study was a hospital with patient rooms on either side of a corridor. Rooms on one side the corridor had windows with views of plants, trees, and lots of natural light. Rooms on the other side had windows facing the wall of a neighboring building. What Ulrich discovered was that the patients recovering in the rooms with abundant natural light and views of vegetation had shorter stays and required much less medication than their counterparts on the other side of the corridor.

In a study sponsored by the state of California, researcher Lisa Heschong found that kids in classrooms with abundant natural light performed as much as 25% better on standardized tests than kids in classrooms with little to no natural light. Large openings with plenty of diffused light and views of people, plants, and other objects in the distance were found to be ideal. Classrooms with unshaded direct sun from south or east-facing windows were shown to contribute to poor student performance, most likely from the excessive glare and heat. Blinds and curtains in classrooms were also very beneficial, since they provide teachers with a simple way to control distractions or glare.

The buildings we inhabit affect us profoundly whether we realize it or not. Most of that influence happens at an unconscious level. As designers, we need to start thinking not only about the aesthetics of the space we create, but also of the invisible emotional connection between those spaces and their occupants.

Jose Thompson
Design Associate

Share this Insight

  • Newsletter Signup