Welcome to the visual companion for the fifth episode of The Render. The Render is a podcast hosted by Modsy’s very own Alessandra Wood and Maddy Warner, and is all about the untold stories from the world of interior design.
In the fifth episode, Maddy and Alessandra are joined by an expert in environmental psychology, Elif Celikors. Together, they dig into the science and not-so-scientific beliefs around how our environment impacts our psyche.Listen Now
Every day, we’re inundated with headlines full of “scientifically proven” formulas for happiness—in just five simple steps (how convenient!). While we know from personal experience that a well-designed space can lead to a happier life, how much of the advice out there is fact versus fiction? Are there really colors that are universally calming? Will a houseplant actually make me happier?
In our fifth episode of The Render, we’re going straight to the source and chatting with environmental psychologist Elif Celikors to see where science stands on this issue. Spoiler alert: there’s no simple answer.
We’ll talk about the scientific studies that exist around environmental psychology, what tactics are proven to create an emotional reaction in your space, and we’ll even debunk a few common design happiness misconceptions.
What is Environmental Psychology?
Let’s start by defining our terms. Environmental psychology is a field of study that looks at the relationship between humans and their physical surroundings, whether that’s built or natural environments. It’s a subset of psychology that seeks to understand how and why our environment impacts us and our well-being, and even how our behaviors and experiences change in different environments.
Elif says that interior design is related to the physical environment—and therefore environmental psychology—and it will naturally have some effect on a person’s psyche. What environmental psychology attempts to do in this realm is take a more analytical approach, to show scientifically why certain things work. They also take a qualitative approach, interviewing people to see what makes them feel better or what their behavioral patterns are, then use those behavioral patterns to prove why we design environments in certain ways.
But it’s important to note: When it comes to environmental psychology and interior design, Elif reminds us that conclusions are science-informed rather than scientifically proven. (Science is rooted in theory, after all.)
What’s the difference between environmental psychology and Feng Shui?
Feng Shui can be seen as an aspect of environmental psychology, as it deals with the psychology of the environment—and it specifically looks at what it means to find balance with the natural world. However, whereas Feng Shui is an ancient tradition, the field of environmental psychology today takes a more experimental, data-driven approach to connect the dots.
Ceiling Height and Creativity
Ceiling height is one of those scientifically informed areas of study within interior design. On a basic level, what we know is that people judge buildings with higher ceilings to be more beautiful. Interesting, right?
But research has gone a bit deeper. Elif says that when a person is in a room with higher ceilings, the part of our brain that’s involved in visual-spatial exploration becomes active. Usually, that’s active when we are actively engaged in our environment and seeking to gain some sort of information.
She says that some theorists actually think that’s a good thing for people—that visual-spatial activation—because we want our attention to be captured by our environment. So, it is possible that when that part of our brain is active under high ceilings, we find ourselves in an environment that is a little more intriguing and we’re actually exploring it by changing our eye movements in that environment.
This also connects to creativity. One study showed that, under high ceilings, people perform better in a setting that requires some measure of creativity.
Rooms with Tall vs Low Ceilings
Of course, how people generally respond and how individuals experience specific environments definitely varies. While some people may find high ceilings stimulating and inspiring, others may feel exposed. Low ceilings, especially in basements, make many people feel claustrophobic—but others may find it cozy and feel safer. As Elif points out, there may be huge differences in how we individually experience the physical features of our environments. And cultural and social experiences can play a huge role in this as well, which shows up in huge ways in color theory.
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Gothic cathedrals of the Medieval period, with their high ceilings, flying buttresses, and tall spires, were (and are) incredibly grand in scale. Much of the idea behind these towering cathedrals—at the time using cutting-edge architectural advancements—was a desire to scale to new heights and reach toward the heavens, causing the onlooker to feel small in comparison to God.
Our visual system is prone to optical illusions. Case in point: the Ebbinghaus Illusion. This is an optical illusion where two circles of the same size are placed near each other, and each one is surrounded by other circles. Though they’re the same size, the circle surrounded by smaller circles appears larger.
So, with that in mind, the illusion of a higher ceiling is just as good (ok, almost as good) as actually having higher ceilings. Here are some of our favorite design tips to help give the illusion of higher ceilings.
Design Tips to Make Your Ceiling Seem Higher
Hang Your Curtains High
Look at how you’re hanging your curtains or drapes. Are you aligning your curtain rods with your window frames? Stop that. Rather, with average-height ceilings (when you have 11-12 inches between the top of your window and your ceiling) hang them as high as possible—just below ceiling height—and let them flow all the way to touch the floor. When you do this, it creates this visual illusion that draws your eye upwards. And voila! Your ceiling will appear higher. The same idea goes for floor-to-ceiling bookcases.
When you opt for furniture that sits lower to the ground, you’re a little more grounded when you sit on it, and the ceiling feels (and actually is) further away. The result? The illusion of higher ceilings. (You’re welcome.)
Ok, so these aren’t scientifically proven illusions—but they make for pretty good hypotheses, huh? From personal experience, we’ve found them helpful.
Clutter. It’s something every design blog and magazine tells us to avoid. Mari Kondo built a career on helping people minimize belongings and streamline their space. Hoarders scared us all from collecting too much junk. But minimizing clutter isn’t just so that our homes look Instagram-perfect.
We all have a certain cognitive capacity—meaning we can’t process an infinite number of objects in one environment. And clutter often causes our cognitive load to, well, overload. It’s like the human brain equivalent to when you have too many tabs open on your computer.
If there’s too much to process, we can’t attend to all of them. As a result, we get distracted and maybe even start feeling negatively about our environments.
Cluttered Minds of the Creative Genius
Of course, there are always the rule-breakers. When it comes to visual clutter, the antithesis to maintaining order and respecting a reasonable cognitive load is the idea of those “creative genius” types. Their workspaces are piled with notes and papers, full of random objects, and it appears that absolutely nothing is in order—and somehow, they function (and even thrive!) in spaces like this.
Francis Bacon’s Studio
A prime example of this? The artist Francis Bacon. His studio, pictured above, looks like it was ransacked. But no, this wasn’t taken after a break-in. This was just his everyday working environment. (Excuse us, just breaking out in stress hives over here.)
Clutter-phobes vs Clutter-philes
A bit of clutter (or lack thereof) is another example of individuals having different experiences. Some people are comforted by being surrounded by familiar objects and an engaging, complex environment. (AKA, a little more “clutter.”) On the other hand, some people really need a streamlined, minimal space with few visual distractions in order to feel calm.
Children as a whole, however, thrive more in an environment where there is enough to visually and tactically stimulate them. Not overly chaotic or boring—but having things they can interact with in their environment.
Designer Tips for Corralling Clutter
Clutter doesn’t have to be the bane of your existence. And, even if you are more of a collector or maximalist, there are ways to design your space that won’t max out your cognitive load. So, consider what “clutter” is additive to your space versus what’s anxiety-producing. For Alessandra, stacks of mail and loose papers are anxiety-inducing or disorienting. But she also loves a good collection; a shelf maxed out with decorative objects is appealing to her. So, think about how you’re personally impacted by clutter, and then consider taking some of the following steps to reduce it if you need!
Rotate Your Decor
Edit down your decorative accessories, and pack some away in a closet or the basement. Then, next time you’re tired and bored of your decor, you can simply rotate in objects and art that you already have. It will give a whole new look and feel to your space while also being very cost-effective.
Try Closed Storage
The idea of a perfectly curated and designed bookshelf is beautiful indeed. But if you’re someone who actually has a ton of books, this might not be realistic. Enter: the closed bookcase. You can fill your shelves to the brim and not worry about constantly looking at overstuffed and sagging shelves. Same goes for media cabinets. Closed storage means you can hide cords, gaming centers, and DVDs. (Do people still have DVDs?)
Consider this the interior-designer-approved version of cleaning your room by throwing everything in your closet or under your bed.
In a similar vein, we love using double-duty pieces of furniture. Storage coffee tables. Beds with built-in storage. Poufs. (It’s a footrest! A chair! A coffee or side table!) This is a great way to add extra functionality to a piece of furniture you need in your space, AND reduce clutter while you’re at it.
A home flooded with natural light. That’s the dream, right? And that stands in stark contrast to a room where the only source of light is fluorescent panels or ugly ceiling lamps and obscured windows. Good (or bad) lighting can really change the whole vibe of a room. We may not have scientific facts to back that up, but that’s a lived experience, people.
Warm vs Cool Light
But guess what? Elif assures us that there is actually quite a bit of research in environmental psychology about lighting and how it impacts us. Warm temperatures of light (like red light) causes melatonin secretion (what helps us fall asleep). And there are studies that show that people perform better at creative tasks when done under warm light versus cooler light. Meanwhile, people do better on tasks that require concentration when working in an environment with cooler light temperatures, like blue light. With blue light, our bodies transition to a state that’s more awake—which could be the correlation there.
Many phones now switch to “night mode” in the evening, where the normal “blue light” of the phone becomes a warmer light, helping your brain switch over to melatonin production. Blue light glasses are also becoming quite popular. Extended exposure to blue light can strain or even damage your eyes. So, these lenses help block the blue light of computer and phone screens, and sometimes even UV rays from the sun, to help minimize exposure.
And we also seem to crave different lighting at different times of the day. Task lamps give that “spotlight” feeling and more bright, cool light, which helps with long work sessions. But in the evening, it’s nice to turn on a floor lamp with a soft shade that emits a warmer light, which feels cozier for the evening. And does anything compare to the coziness and warmth of patio lights strung up and twinkling on a summer’s evening? So calming and cozy.
Design Tips to Improve Lighting in Your Space
Ok, so we now know that lighting truly does have an impact, not only psychologically, but physiologically. So, it might be helpful to take some steps to align your habitat with the habits you want to put into practice.
Try Smart Bulbs
You can actually now purchase smart light bulbs that will emit different colors at different times of the day. So, if you need to switch from a high-concentration task to creative tasks—just change the warmth of the light! There are also alarm clocks and smart bulbs that help you wake up with bulbs that gradually get brighter and switch from a warm to cool light as the intensity of the light grows—mimicking the pattern of the sun rising to help stimulate your brain.
Consider Where You Put Your TV and Phone Charger
It’s worth being thoughtful about where you put TVs and where you charge your phone at night. If you’re someone who’s very sensitive to blue light in the evening, probably avoid a TV in the bedroom. You’ll inevitably watch TV at night, and it could impact your sleep cycle. And that’s no good. Same goes for your phone. Having it plugged in right by your bed and setting it on your nightstand will probably lead to late-night mindless scrolling. But plugging it in across the room—or even in another room—can encourage you to plug it in and be done with it for the evening before you start your bedtime routine.
Layer Your Lighting
Here’s a bonus tip that we didn’t talk about on the podcast: layer your lighting. Layered lighting means having different sources of light within a room. So, perhaps a mix of floor and table lamps, sconces, overhead lights, or even string lights. You don’t have to have all of these in every room of your house—but having two or more light sources in a room gives you more control over the lighting and mood throughout the day. It’s what allows you to make your space go from bright and stimulating for work or study sessions where productivity is key, to dim and cozy for movie nights.
It’s now time to debunk a couple of myths in the realm of environmental psychology and design. There are things, like color, that the Internet would like us to believe will make us happier, feel calmer, be more productive—and the list goes on. (Green will make you happier! Red will make you angry! Yellow is cheery!) But they are not actually proven to influence our mood.
Universal color theory in interior design is actually a myth. Sure, color influences people. But what we don’t know is what specific colors do. And when we talk about incorporating colors in our environments, there are so many different ways this can come to life. A red wall will have a very different impact than a red vase. So, it’s not as easy as saying that a certain color will make you feel a certain way, without question.
Remember the dress from a couple years ago? You know, THE DRESS. Was it blue and black? Or white and gold? Perception, my friends. The way people saw it completely boiled down to how your brain made assumptions about the light in the environment.
Common Color Theory
As designers, we always hear that, “If you want a serene and calm space, add blue.” It evokes thoughts of the ocean. Feelings of serenity. But not everyone likes the ocean! Some people find it scary! This is an oversimplified example that illustrates how color, and the accompanying emotions and perceptions that go with it, are much more personalized to the individual. There are colors that might make one person feel calm and another feel anxious. And then, of course, different cultures often have different associations with different colors.
But sure, there are some general perceptions of color that we’ve experienced. Here are some quick notes on common western associations with different colors. Blue, as we mentioned, is often associated with feelings of calmness and serenity. It has also been linked to dependability and strength, or, more negatively, it can seem cold and unfriendly. Some sources say that red evokes feelings of love and comfort or passion. Others say power or even aggression. Green, with its associations with nature, is often connected with feelings of refreshment and tranquility. Though, some have said that, when incorrectly used it can seem bland and stale. And all these competing theories—proof that that color theory is an imperfect science, if you can call it a science at all.
Pink Prison Study
Back in 1979, a case study was conducted at a prison to see how people responded to the color pink—the hypothesis being that it would have calming effects. In the study, several cell walls at the prison were painted bubblegum pink. Afterward, prisoners showed reduced aggression. So, other prisons started following suit, with mixed results.
In reality, it probably wasn’t so much that bubblegum pink made them feel better. Rather, it was likely more because they had a change in their environment. That it wasn’t just grey but was more visually stimulating.
Plants: Do they really make people happy?
Bringing the outdoors in. Plants make people happy. But do they really? Is there actually a benefit to filling your home with natural greenery? The science is definitely out on this one.
Here’s what we do know, for sure: Being out in nature is good for you. It reduces stress levels and helps you feel better. But, according to Elif, what we don’t know is why. Which makes it pretty tough to scientifically reason if plants as part of interior design actually have a psychological impact.
One of the working hypotheses is that there are interesting things in nature to engage with. Things that inspire us or trigger our curiosity. So, it’s possible that house plants can trigger that same curiosity as you watch your plant grow and change over time. There could also be something to the idea of how taking care of a living thing in your space brings greater satisfaction (and therefore happiness) to your space.
But then there are the people who hate plants. Those who would only consider a fake plant because they’ve killed every live one they ever had. Real plants decidedly do not make them happy.
So, do plants really make people happy? Maybe. Sometimes. Depends on the person.
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Biophilic design is a concept that’s used within the building industry to increase people’s connectivity to nature. The thought is that incorporating natural elements within an urban space will have positive health, environmental, and economic benefits. So, if you’ve ever seen a grass wall: biophilic design.
Personalization: The Magic Bullet of Interior Design
So what have we learned today? A lot of what we discussed comes down to personalization. When we think about how we talk about style, we often push people to think about what makes them tick. There are a lot of aspects of your space where happiness is introspective. It comes down to personal preference. But Elif does share that, when people have control over their environments, when they’re able to personalize it, they report being more content.
So, while universal tips on how to design a space may be interesting, going through an introspective process is more important when it comes to the interior design of your home. We need to collect some data about ourselves: What makes me feel good? Does this color, this painting, this style make me feel calm or stress me out? Get in tune with your individual needs rather than blindly following a universal design tip.
Because we’re all different! We all have different needs and preferences as humans, but also when it comes to the design of our homes. So, here’s what we say: Create a space that reflects who you are—your own psyche and your own personality. And that will make you happy in your home more than any design tips ever will.
And this is why we care so much about helping people find their individual design style at Modsy. We want to help you create a home that will make you feel happy—and that comes down to your individual preferences. (Need some help? Listen to episode 1 of our podcast!)
So, what makes you happy when it comes to your home?
Special thanks to Elif Celikors for joining us!
Elif holds a B.S. in Psychology and an M.S. in Environmental Psychology. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Cognitive & Perceptual Psychology at Cornell University. Her work focuses on understanding how visual scenes elicit emotional responses. She also attempts to photograph scenes that elicit beautiful emotions. Check her out on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.