People, Places, and Things

The psychology of design: How to create an environment in which you will thrive

Mother Nature: Design Guru

Using Nature's design principles has positive results!

Nature uses the same basic design principles over and over again in spaces we enjoy visiting.  When we recognize those principles and apply them ourselves, our lives improve.

Designing as nature does is called biophilic design.  Judith Heerwagen and Bert Gregory lay out the key details of biophilic design in a 2008 essay (“Biophilic and Sensory Aesthetics” in Biophilic Design, edited by Stephen Kellert, Judith Heerwagen and Martin Mador).

Heerwagen and Gregory report on “what it is about nature that creates a sense of pleasure, well-being, and engagement with place.”  Human designers can achieve positive and psychologically powerful effects by applying the principles they discuss. 

As Heerwagen and Gregory describe, the sorts of natural places where we thrive are, for example:

  • Filled with a variety of pleasant sensory experiences that change - during the course of a day, from season to season.  Mother Nature doesn’t create plain white boxes for its creatures—in nature we find a variety of colors, textures, smells...
  • Animated by gentle, rhythmic movement, such as that created by a soft breeze—you can create the same effect with a relaxing view into a fish tank or a mobile calmly drifting in an air current.
  • Sources of “ephemeral and unexpected” positive experiences that focus our attention.  Consider the additional details that become visible in nature when we take a closer look at a leaf or a butterfly wing.  Ponder the unexpected, beautiful, and transient experiences we can have outdoors, created perhaps by an intriguing pattern of shadows encountered on a mossy bank. 
  • Organized to include a space that helps us relax, when we need to.  The optimal relaxation zones have a view of the wider world from a place where we feel protected.  Classic front porches, that feature a roof overhead and a wall behind our backs, for example, are popular places to snooze through a summer afternoon.

 Applying nature’s design principles clearly involves a lot more than hanging a few landscapes where you can see them.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Sally Augustin, Ph.D., is a practicing environmental psychologist who studies person-centered design and sensory science.

more...

Subscribe to People, Places, and Things

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.