The “most worn” book by my desk is a book called Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture, by Sally Augustin.  It is my go-to resource for understanding how people are affected by space size and shape, by color, by company culture, by national culture and many other factors.  I highly recommend it.  Sally has also written countless other articles on psychology and space, and chances are you’ve read her work in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes, or her contributions to the Harvard Business Review.  I managed to snag an hour of her time recently to ask some questions I’ve been meaning to ask her for a while now.

LS: So Sally, when you at a cocktail party, what do you tell people you do?

SA: I tell them I’m a psychologist, and that I focus on how the physical environment influences people’s attitudes and behaviors.  I typically will give them examples, like how colors or textures or temperatures affect people, but also how personalities and cultures come into play as well.  After I explain what I do, people often say, “Oh, so you do scientific feng shui?”   I suppose that’s true.  I’m a feng shui master with a focus on the science of space – to help people live their best lives.

After I explain what I do, a huge percentage of the time, I get asked, “What color should I paint my home office?” Apparently this is the physical environment issue that is most pressing to the population at large.  I always suggest a “not very saturated,” but relatively bright sage green.  I’ve done a great deal of research on color saturation and brightness which shows that any color that is not very saturated, but bright, will put people in the right cognitive mood to do knowledge work. There is also research connecting the color green to creative thinking.  Although green got a bad rap in the 1950s when the interior of every government-owned building was painted that color, there are advantages to green spaces.

LS: How did you get into this specialty?

SA: I was an economics major at Wellesley, but when I was a senior, I didn’t want to do the jobs that economics major’s do, so I went to business school at Northwestern, with a finance and marketing focus.  After Northwestern, I happened to get involved in retail design projects.  I wasn’t the designer on the projects, but I got really intrigued about aspects of physical environments in stores, and how it influences shopper behaviors.  I was so interested in this, I went back to school and got a PhD.

LS: Tell us about Research Design Connections.

SA: I co-founded this site several years ago (2002) with a landscape architect, Jean Marie Cackowski-Campbell. We were interested in creating it because we knew there was a lot of design-related research “out there” that was important and could make people’s lives better, but it was written in technical terms and no one applied the research findings.  That seemed terrible to us, so we collected the research and put it in one place so people could use it.  There is a subscription fee, but it’s pretty nominal considering the volume of research.  At this point we have roughly 3,000 articles available there on different topics.  We find we have a wide range of subscribers to the site, including single individuals who are interested in science and design but also architectural firms, interior design firms, landscape architecture firms and researchers.  Subscribers also include famous hotels and major international manufacturers of products you wouldn’t associate with architecture or interior design.

LS: What is your take on the open office environments designed today?

SA: When you are considering designing an open office space, the first question you have to ask, is what will the people in the space be doing?  Open office environments work well for people doing certain kinds of tasks, and really badly for people doing other types of tasks. The real lesson for designing open offices is that you can’t provide one work environment that will work for everyone.  You really need to consider what people would be doing, for example whether they require focused concentration or not.

LS: We’ve talked in years past about the impact of distractions in the workplace and the personality of people in different work environments and how that plays a role with their productivity.

SA: Individual differences happen at many levels.  There are certain people who have a very good sense of smell for example – there are limitless variations among people.  One of the ways that people are unique is how distracted they can get.  But even the people who are relatively impervious to distraction can get distracted in open office environments if their job requires concentration and focus.  When it gets down to it, you can ask people to work anywhere – even Grand Central Station – and generally they will try, because generally people are a good sort.  But if you want them to work at their highest, most productive level, it’s better to give them an environment that aligns with what they do.

There is a growing amount of evidence that people are retreating to bathrooms stalls to perform distraction-free work, often catching up on a few emails or tasks like that. I think people hanging out in bathrooms to do work is a real condemnation of the workplace that is being provided to them.  That said, real estate today requires compromises.  On the one hand, you want to provide distraction-free space for people; on the other hand, rent is really pricey in many places, so you have to be realistic.

LS: What research are you doing right now?

SA: I run a consulting practice called Design with Science, and I’m currently working on workplace projects, healthcare projects, and some retail work.  You can go to Research Design Connections for my latest articles, but also I write for Office Insight and I have a column in Psychology Today online.  I also, until recently, wrote for Metropolis Magazine on “Places that Work,” with my take on places I visited and what was good about them from an environmental psychology perspective.  These articles are still available.  Here are links to some of my recent favorites articles on HBR.org:

LS: Where do you go to find good articles?

SA: I typically go to peer review article search engine, like Pscyh Lit, which is available to American Psychological Association members only, but If you have access to a university library (particularly one that is state run), you can get access to it.  I do get contacted by a number of reporters asking for my advice who are pretty rigorous about what they report.  The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Scientific American Mind, Harvard Business Review – most major newspapers and journals – are careful to fact check typically, so I feel comfortable about what I read there.

LS: Who are your favorite scientists?

SA: There are a number of different people I admire, but the first name that comes to mind is Robert Sommer.  He is an Emeritus professor at UC Davis and I admire him because he has been really proactive about getting out the word on environmental psychology topics and demonstrating how the physical environment can influence attitudes and behaviors.  In the 1960s and 70s he was writing about the importance of “personal space” (particularly for psychiatric patients) and how airport design impacts the experience of people who fly.  He has a wide range of interests including being a mushroom aficionado (Mycologist) and an artist, and he is generous with his time, giving people entering the field all kinds of advice.

LS: Looking ahead, what are some of the concerns you have related to space and behavior?

SA: I think we need to be concerned about how people raised in different cultures experience the physical environment, for example, how people in different cultures want to arrange themselves in a space.  Now, more than ever, there is a mixing of people from different cultures in stressful situations.  If we understood how different people experience space, we might help reduce unneeded stressors.  There was a study that came out a few years ago about offices and meeting rooms, specifically how they are used in Gulf States versus in the West.  Gulf State cultures are more “poly-synchronous” i.e. open to doing multiple things at the same time.  In the Middle East, anyone might feel comfortable entering a room to ask a question of someone in the meeting.  The border is much more permeable than in the West.  How would you design for that?  Could we make it easier for people inside and outside of the meeting to communicate with each other?

To use another example, people from different cultures often have different “personal space” needs. If furniture is relatively lightweight and easy to position, it allows people to adjust furniture to suit their individual comfort level.  If a chair seat is relatively wide, that allows an individual to scoot to one side, so that there is some distance between themselves and the next person.

LS: I think as designers and as business people, we all have to become savvy about cultural differences today.  We can’t just blanket the world with a one-size-fits-all solution.  That’s colonialism, and as history has shown, it’s doesn’t always work out so well.

SA: Interestingly, language can also be an influencer of cultural differences.  A researcher named Lera Boroditsky has been looking at how the gender of an object has been linked to which forms of it are well-received by a population.  Specifically, she has done some research on how different cultures perceive bridges. In the languages where the word bridge is feminine, the design of bridges tended to be more graceful and curvier.  In cultures where the world bridge is masculine in gender, the reverse is true.  So think about how this might play out if you are a bridge builder from a culture where the word bridge is feminine and you create a design and show it to a client from a culture where the word bridge is masculine.  You can imagine them saying, “No, no, it’s just not right; it looks flimsy.”  The client can’t articulate for themselves why it isn’t right, but there is a very specific reason, tied to language.  There is a major communication disconnect.  Language is a very interesting factor that shapes how we see the world.

Bascule bridge in Barcelona port, Catalonia, Spain

Bascule bridge in Barcelona port, Catalonia, Spain.  The word bridge is masculine in Spanish.

To learn more about Sally Augustin and her amazing range of research and work, check out her website Design with Science, subscribe to Research Design Connections or reach out to her on LinkedIn.