How design and mental health are linked in everyday life

I recently spent a few days on Kangaroo Island. I can totally recommend it.

During my time there I stayed at two separate places. I won’t name them given that I am going to compare them.

The first place was very new. Architecturally designed. Fantastic attention to detail both in terms of design but also functionality (e.g. fully stocked kitchen). It included lots of very open spaces, including the bathroom, with only 1 internal door (to the toilet).

All the surfaces were wood or tile. It was situated to maximise afternoon light. They had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the field of view from the place (which looked out onto vast fields, undulating hills and national park) was unobstructed.

This was a magazine perfect place.

The effect of the place on my psychology however was mixed. The scenery was magnificent and very relaxing. But in terms of the place, I often felt like an intruder – like I wasn’t good enough to be there. It also felt wrong to disturb the living spaces, in the same way as it feels wrong to mess up a display home. I felt like I dirtied the place, and I found myself cleaning and tidying it as I went.

The second place I stayed at was more traditional. A beach hut, with open plan living and kitchen, but more segmented bedroom/bathroom. It was immaculately cleaned with similar attention to detail (well stocked). However the materials from which it was made were cheaper, the surfaces less stark. The view was less impressive than the first, but still nice – nested into a hill with some sea views.

This place however felt immediately comfortable. I felt like I had been there for weeks. The furniture felt more inviting to use and sit on. They had somehow created more by doing less.

The experience reminded me of just how important place is when thinking about mental health. My experience of these two different accommodations highlighted the following design elements as important in determining the effect of a place on a person’s psychology.

  • Natural light
  • Clear inviting spots to sit and relax
  • Surfaces that invite interaction
  • the use of hard surfaces (not too much)
  • the degree of privacy of some spaces (e.g. bathroom)
  • the positioning of the place (e.g. hilltop versus nestled into a hill)
  • the contents of the place – stuff you feel like using

Essentially the second place had created a more homely environment, whilst the first had created a more visually stunning environment.

Observations of how different places make you feel can give you insights into how to structure your own living spaces. For example, the second place had a deck and table/chairs that just immediately invited you to sit on them and relax. I like to try and create these sitting spaces in my own place – particularly the lounge, and also my office.

Also the second place confirmed to me that I prefer smaller, more cosy spaces, than I do wide open spaces.

Now your preferences may and probably will differ to mine, but the observation that places and spaces influence our mental health is relevant to us all.

How do you modify your spaces and places to suit you?