Could good design make us smarter?

3214197147_9752dd52df_o_mod2 Do you believe that the design of shopping centres deliberately manipulates you into spending more money? I would hazard a guess that most people would find this statement a reasonably believable one. What about your office space? Can we, through design, manipulate your organisational culture, work styles or even increase your productivity? (I use the term manipulate here to illustrate that we could perceive using design to impact upon behaviours in either a negative or positive way).

Now, with this second statement, we would certainly start to find that less people are likely to agree without some form of proof. CEOs and finance mangers start to ask for case studies and research papers with demostrated and quantifiable results. However, I’d say most architects and designers likely believe this to be true – that we can impact (or manipulate) peoples behaviour by design.  Many of us are inspired by this idea, and the possibility of making a positive change in the lives of our buildings inhabitants. But what if I told you that good design could actually make you smarter? It’s an intriguing idea, one which I suspect many designers would like the sound of, but perhaps not believe. I came across this idea some months ago and it’s a topic I’ve been meaning to post about ever since. This weekend while writing the first draft of this post, I’m away at a yoga retreat, and in that spirit, I felt I needed to write a positive and uplifting post full of great inspiring ideas rather than complaining about deadlines or why revit is driving me slightly insane (future post on that one!).

The idea that architecture could make us smarter is certainly am awesome one to contemplate. The Secret Life of Buildings: Grey Matter is a video segment from a TV program (only just over 3 minutes long) that reports on a study that shows that the brains of mice actually change when they are exposed to stimulating and changing environments. It’s now pretty commonly accepted that animals in captivity are happier and more content when they have variety and stimulation in their environments. Somehow (which seems a little strange) it’s taken us a bit longer to realise this applies to people in the workplace too. I’ve discussed this further in a previous post and Nigel Oseland has also written a great blog post on the subject. The step that’s new in this particular research, is that the scientists were not just looking at the end outcomes, the behaviors of the animals, but actually monitoring the brain structures of the mice. And what they found was that different, more stimulating and changing, environments caused the growth of neurons.  This is essentially meaning we are growing grew matter and in theory I would think, over time should make us smarter. So the scientists go onto suggest that all of the environments we inhabit as humans are  impacting on our brains. Given that most of us now spend our time in man made environments, this means that we are creating the environments that impact on our brains.  “Architects are impacting the structure of my brain by virtue of the designs they are making…” Potentially this impact could be either a positive one, generating new neurons in the building occupants – or it could be a negative one, essentially letting the brains of the building occupants stagnate.

Wow that’s a pretty big responsibility as an architect or designer. But a pretty amazing one too. I’d like to think I design spaces that make people smarter, and happier too. If this is true, just imagine how much more value would be placed upon design by our society. Architects and designers would certainly rise to an esteemed position in society with much less debate over the value of design in our society. Whilst I’m no scientist, based on this research, as well as my own experiences of design, both as designer and building occupant, I think this is a pretty reasonable hypothesis and it could actually be true.

Now we just need to find some way to prove its true for humans as well as the mice don’t we? This segments is actually 2 years old – does anyone know of any other research into these kinds of ideas?  What could be more measurable and quantifiable that the growth of occupants brains? How could anyone argue against paying for good design if they knew that they could make their staff, or their students smarter.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  TZA