A Few Personal Thoughts on Environmental Design
Updated: Jun 28
I remember my first job right after I earned my MFA in design, after 5 grueling, mentally exhausting years of sleep deprivation, exploded eyeball capillaries and constant neck cramps. The company was obviously your typical tech giant, with headquarters in a remote SF adjacent tech-village, with restaurants, cafes, a pond and even a swimming pool noone ever used. It was more money than I had ever seen on any of my paychecks to date, and so I sold out in under 25 seconds, abandoning dreams of fancy New York design studios or becoming a design hero in a on profit sector.
Instead I stuffed my dreams into a small gray cubicle with cold silver overhead lights, weird green-tan wall paint, and even weirder grayer carpets. Nothing could remedy the boring sameness and the skull numbing apathy that followed in the next 3 years of my “design career”, where I dutifully spat out on-brand brochures and digital campaigns. The work did feel interesting at first, and I don’t regret all of the lessons I had learned from my wonderful DD and my over-caffinated hipster fellows. What I could not get past though, was the lack of light, the drab colors and ZERO mental stimulation at a workplace that was meant to inspire through technological speed and innovation.
Nothing could kill your joy faster than staring at a gray wall. It is when I realized that the work environment affects everyone’s mental and by extension physical well being, and if done poorly, can contribute to boredom, lack of creative stimulation, and a mental acuity of a sloth.
Bigger and Better
I was fortunate to drag myself out of the cubicle culture, and eventually graduated to a very hip design studio, that specialized not only in creating workplace magic, but took every design decision seriously.
Working along side architects and interior designers, I realized that brand as I had known it was just a small slice of a larger pie.
I learned how to alter real physical space, and at first everything looked and felt enormous. A red circle on a printed elevation was only 3 inches tall, but in real scale about 8 feet high.The impact of each graphics felt immense, and every decision seemed to have very had big consequences, size wise at least. With time, and experience I learned to control the never fading enthusiasm for grandeur yet still have a special affinity for super graphics, guess I like feeling small in a space marked by an imposing red circle.
I have come to a realization that branded spaces allow the visitor a visceral physical experience on a scale that a logo or packaging could never accomplish. A brand can tell a more impactful story when it reaches you through all of the senses: tactile installations, harmonious colors, exciting typography or meandering floor graphics. Environmental graphics are a lexicon in a designer’s pocket with which he or she can evoke a meaning, build suspense, or playfully engage the viewer.
A skilled experiential designer thinks of spatial design as a well written play, with parts of dialogue intersected by moments of silence. Similarly some graphics serve as jolting moments designed to wake up the audience, while others provide calm and respite, or promote a state of relaxed attentiveness. The overall narrative of this design theater remains constant, but the tone changes, yet it never confuses or offends the viewer.
What This Means for a Brand
Brands go to great lengths to connect with their people, they do it on a huge spectrum from creating goofy fantastical yet relatable characters to building narratives steeped in “telling it like it is” realism. Whatever the voice and whatever the flavor of the story—building that connection (widely known as brand loyalty) creates a meaningful foundation that allows a brand to not only sell a product, but to create a soapbox. This platform equips them with the power to influence habits, lifestyles and even values i.e.: tampon ads try to move the needle around women’s shame about their natural body functions.
Experiential design is the most powerful ways brands take up space in the world (outside of Internet and TV) by creating experiences and environments in which the audience can really “feel” the brand with all their senses. The impact of these branded spaces is exponentially larger than and interaction with a product. Walking into the Guiness Storehouse in Ireland and spending hours in interactive rooms, in a part fun-house part gallery setting, creates a memory of a unique physicality of the brand, one that a 4 color brochure could never replicate. Our senses are overwhelmed, our interest is peaked by whimsical installations, backlit historical data, and colorful IG moments allow us a backdrop for our own storytelling.
What This Means for the Employees
There is a reason why workplace design is still so popular, even as we slowly emerge from post pandemic isolation, which felt more like a straightjacket than a safe cocoon.
Most of us want to return to some of the normalcy and crave the social aspects of the office culture, and so offices will may scale down, or become more temporary, but will remain in use. An engaged employee will always be more productive, and so a happy workspace that activates and stimulates creativity and helps productivity is a no brainer. It is an obvious decision by many companies to upgrade the workplaces and equip them with spaces to collaborate, hubs for leisure time and relaxation, or areas for intense and focused work.
Color and pattern, and especially biophilia, may seem like simplistic solutions, but affect the employees psychologically by enhancing their mood, contributing to happiness, which in turn leads to employee retention, and ultimately helps the bottom line.
Wayfinding and UI/UX
Wayfinding is a tool used in directing people through a space. Having created these systems for large brands, it is clear to me that a well organized signage supports users ability to navigate through spaces with greater efficiency, confidence and clarity of purpose through charts, directories, clearly identified rooms and collar spaces. the value of way finding systems to the company is immense; it prevents confusion and bottlenecks. A badly designed way finding system at it’s worst can cost someone life in an event of an emergency.
Environmental designers can also capitalize on human psychology and associate color with geographic direction, so dividing a space in two colors, one on the east and one on the west can help people orient themselves easier as their associations work on a subconscious level.
All of these examples serve to encapsulate a few ideas that are here to stay.
Brands are capitalizing and extending their influence on their audiences with fully immersive exhibitions, IG hot spots and fully branded environments that tell a brand story with art that reaches the senses.
Workplaces, and even public spaces like parks, tennis courts and schools allow a lot more room for playful engagement, making environmental enhancement a priority. Our depleting environment, global warming and the fast pace of city living make connecting with nature a necessity if we are to keep our sanity. Americans work about 50 hrs/6 times a week and are more tired and stretched than in the past, so they need access to comfortable and revitalizing environments to maintain good mood and productivity.
Since these few recent generations have been raised largely with computers, they/we are used to seamless navigation, easy communication, and great speed. We want to move with equal efficiency in real life as we do in virtual environments. We don’t want to overthink our actions and so the environment has to support this evolved cognitive behavior if we are to avoid frustrations, or worse accidents.
As someone who is passionate about making our world not only friendly, inclusive and beautiful, we at Nervy we are fully invested in giving you the necessary tools to create more impact on your employees, your brand and your business.