Design and the Mind

How everyday objects affect our moods, thoughts, and behavior.

Unhappy Hipsters: Does modern architecture make us gloomy?

A satirical blog raises questions about homes and happiness.

A new blog has been making the rounds of the twittersphere for the past couple of weeks, inspiring lots of knowing giggles among design enthusiasts. The blog, Unhappy Hipsters, takes images from the popular architecture and design magazine Dwell, and offers new captions about the emotional states of the people in the photos. With the rewritten captions, the blog shines a light on the mirthless style of modern design magazine photography, where people are shot in solitary, pensive poses or in strangely non-interactive groups. But it also begs a question — why are these hipsters so unhappy?

  

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Is there some truth to the blog's subtitle "It's Lonely in the Modern World' (a riff on Dwell's "At Home in the Modern World")? Are there elements of modern design that inherently make us feel gloomy?

Maybe so. You may have noticed that different spaces affect your mood in different ways, based on the colors, light, textures, and forms that characterize them. These effects can be subtle or they can be dramatic, but they're not just a matter of taste. Whether or not you like the design of a space, its different aesthetic elements can combine to feel stimulating or relaxing, comforting or jarring, festive or serene or somber. Sometimes our responses to our environment are unconscious, so that we don't even realize it's the aesthetics that are making us feel a certain way, and instead attribute it to the things that are going on in our lives or the company we're in at a given moment.

Modern design was born out of a desire to leave behind the ornamentation and excesses of 19th century Europe. In essence, it's a stripped back, pared down style of design, favoring clean, often angular lines, neutral colors in tones of gray and beige, bare materials, and a general sense of spareness and minimalism. (I'm generalizing here for the sake of discussion — not all modern architecture is about cold gray cubes. Volumes have been written highlighting examples of brightly colored, joyfully curvy modern furniture and dwellings. Dwell itself attempts to celebrate this side of modernism. But the prevailing experience of modern design for most of us in the mainstream is stripped down, hard-edged, and cool verging on cold. Or as one Unhappy Hipsters caption reads, "still, gray, and gravel-strewn.") Though these aesthetics are often intended to create a sense of zen-like tranquility, the result is frequently closer to melancholy isolation, which is what Unhappy Hipsters is lampooning. The question is, why?

Color is an obvious factor. We know that color has powerful effects on mood and mental functioning. Lab studies have shown that the color red induces better performance on focused tasks, while blue puts people in a more creative frame of mind. Reports have also suggested that warm colors like red raise blood pressure and respiration rate, while cool colors like blue have the opposite effect. It seems intuitive that cool, desaturated colors like grays would have a similarly muting effect on our autonomic nervous system, making us less energetic and aroused.

Form has other emotional effects. A 2007 study published in the journal Neuropsychologia revealed that angular forms have a strange, unconscious emotional effect on us. Viewing angular forms, as opposed to curved forms, triggers activation in the amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure in the limbic system of our brains associated with emotional memory — specifically fear. We may not feel any conscious fear, but this brief moment of activity translates to a general sense of dislike for these objects. One hypothesis is that in nature, angles suggest something to watch out for — a tree branch, a sharp rock, the edge of a cliff — all things around which a heightened sense of attention and caution is appropriate. But perhaps too many angles in our homes sets us on edge, and contributes to the sense of negative affect we feel towards much modern design.

Finally, I think that modernism's restrained quality is fundamentally in tension with the idea of delight. Delight is an emotion of abundance — a celebration of sensation and richness. Delight and joy are primally connected to wellness, and wellness in nature is lush, plump, vibrant, and bountiful. Throughout our evolution, these were the aesthetics that signaled a good place to settle — one that provided adequate water, food, and shelter to sustain life. The matte, bare surfaces beloved of modernists signal something else entirely. I can't help but think there must be something primal within us that understands such stripped down spaces as inhospitable — the emotional equivalent of dry desert, or fallow fields.

Emerging findings from disciplines of psychology such as evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and ecopsychology may soon shed more light on the questions of what spaces feel good to us and why. The notion that there are intrinsic aesthetic preferences built into our human nature is a provocative but intriguing view. As Steven Pinker observes in The Blank Slate, "The belief that human tastes are reversible cultural preferences has led social planners to write off people's enjoyment of ornament, natural light, and human scale and force millions of people to live in drab cement boxes." Perhaps viewpoints like this will lead to more empirical exploration that will give tools to designers to create more humanistic spaces for living, working, healing, and playing. Maybe even spaces that make the hipsters happy.

    

Ingrid Fetell is a designer and writer whose work explores the emotional relationships between people and things.

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