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How Design Affects Our Lives

Students at Harvard's Graduate School of Design school work in "trays."
Courtesy Harvard University Graduate School of Design

The standard version of the way we perceive the world is this: Through our five senses, our brains get data about the outside world — and organize the data into coherent perceptions of sights, sounds, smells, the world as we experience. Based on your thoughts, background, who you are — you react to the data, do things, live your life in that world.

In her new book, “Welcome to Your World: How the Build Environment Shapes Our Lives,” Sarah Williams Goldhagen explains how the real process is a lot messier. 

“The environments are influencing our bodies and our cognitions in a kind of three-way recursive loop that just goes on and on,” she said. “But most people don't see their environments as having that kind of an active and shaping role.  And it does, science shows us it does.”

Your sense of self is a construct in your brain, a model that allows you to understand who you are: I have arms and legs, lungs that are breathing air, a brain that’s thinking these thoughts. This is who I am. 

But it’s pretty much the same way you think: this is a chair, or this is my living room. Your world is part of the same process of perception that creates … you. 

“The places that we come from and inhabit in our lives literally, literally help constitute our identities,” Goldhagen said. “Because long-term autobiographical memories cannot be formed, except through the same neural pathways that we use to navigate space and recognize places.”

What designers do to create the worlds we live in is vitally important — that’s not news. But what’s new, Goldhagen says, is that there’s now some solid research and data about how, precisely, those configurations of space and light and color and sound affect how we live and experience life.

Students walk up the stairs built over "the trays" at Harvard's Gund Hall.
Courtesy Harvard University Graduate School of Design

You can see this in action in pretty much any big institution, especially if you have help from someone like Mikyoung Kim, an award-winning landscape architect who’s incorporated some of this latest research into her work. 

We started at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where Kim trained, and Goldhagen taught. Now, a design school better be well designed, and even though Gund Hall was built long before this latest research, it incorporates elements designed to influence how students think.

From the top of the stairs that cut down through open floors, you can see all the staggered layers, the desks overflowing with projects — they’re called "the trays."

“The trays allow for learning when we're not even thinking about it,” Kim said. “You’re walking down the stairs you look at somebody's desk, you overhear a conversation. There aren't these kind of discrete classrooms that divide things up. And so I think this creates an environment that allows for students to be responsive and flexible.”

In spite of what we see at Harvard, Goldhagen says that designers have been pretty slow to adopt the latest research when planning new buildings.

“Architects tend to be trained — not just architects, landscape architects, whatever — tend to be trained, really pretty much within the ethos of the humanities and the social sciences," Goldhagen said. "Especially the hard sciences, because some of the research I draw from is from cognitive neuroscience, are almost anathema to the kind of artistic humanities based training in which most designers get.”

But she says one industry that is taking notice of this research is healthcare. 

“Because there is a lot of data that people heal better in certain kinds of environments than in other kinds of environments,” said Goldhagen. “If you use Brigham and Women's Hospital, let's say, you've noticed that they've done some renovations recently. Children's Hospital is another good example of that.”

Mikyoung Kim is one of the architects leading the renovations at Children’s Hospital in Boston. 

One of the things that we do in our design work is really understanding how the body transforms in the environments that we shape,” she said. “There's a real desire to infuse green and infused natural light and kind of the multi-sensory engagement into the experience of the hospital.

The research Goldhagen writes about in “Welcome to Your World” shows that access to green spaces and effectively deployed natural light has measurable health benefits. At Children’s Hospital, that was the thinking behind the glass that now covers the entrance. Natural light floods in, reflected off customized blue pavement. Kim says the only other place she’s seen that color stone is Disneyland.

An artist rendering of the multi-purpose room at the renovated Boston Children's Hospital.
Shepley Bulfinch Architects
An artist rendering of a NICU patient room at the renovated Boston Children's Hospital.
Shepley Bulfinch Architects

The walls, which help direct you inside to the multitude of spaces — emergency, long-term care, specialists’ offices — look like soft waves.

“The forms of both the interior and the exterior really talk about this kind of gentle curve embracing the families and patients so that they feel comfortable, that there is a sense of kind of a living room language that softens the clinical experience of the hospital.”

Kim says many families walk through this entrance facing the worst day of their lives; the value of mitigating that stress is immeasurable. But she’s even more excited about bringing the renovations to the inpatient areas where young patients are fighting to recover. They’ll have access to green spaces on every floor and natural light in patient rooms, which can mean easier pain management, quicker recovery and even lower rates of mortality.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Mikyoung Kim taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Kim trained there, but has not taught there in the past.

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