People, Places, and Things

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

Curvier Seems More Beautiful and More Comfortable

Whether a space has more curved lines or straight ones matters.

Imagine this: You’re standing in the furniture store staring at a pair of sofas, both of which would nicely fill the empty space left in your living room after the final demise of your last couch. One is a curvier than the other – its legs are bowed a little bit, its stuffing is a little plumper, and its armrests curvaceously cuddle your forearms. The other sofa option has been crafted by someone who owns a protractor; its lines are pretty much straight and meet at carefully pre-determined angles (we are talking upholstered furniture here, there is a limit to any sort of precision). Both sofas are covered in the same fabric and are equally comfortable to sit on.

Which sofa should you choose?

In a complex study done with fMRI machines, Vartanian and his research team found that participants found predominantly curvilinear spaces (i.e., ones where there were more curvy lines in the furniture, wall paper etc., than straight ones) more beautiful and pleasant than more rectilinear ones (these are spaces where straight lines, for example, are more plentiful than curved ones). This research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2013.

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Research done with pictures shows that we think that furniture that has a more organic look and more rounded forms is more relaxing than more angular designs. Often cited investigation, by Dazkir and Read (“Furniture Forms and Their Influence on Our Emotional Responses Toward Interior Environments,” Environment and Behavior), is consistent with a long line of studies indicating that people generally feel differently about things that are rounded as opposed to more angular.

Silvia and Barona in 2009, for example, found that when people are looking at objects that are equally symmetrical, balanced, and typical (so novelty isn’t the deciding factor), rounder shapes were preferred to more angular ones. Chang and Wu in 2007 had similar responses when they asked people about images of products – some with soft and curved surfaces and some in the opposite camp. In 2006, Bar and Neta also published a study showing that objects and patterns with curved features are preferred to those with pointy ones and sharp angles.

Since most of us plan to relax in and enjoy spaces where couches normally go (living rooms and family rooms, for example), that curvier couch is starting to look like the way to go.

There are other implications for lines and shapes beyond home design and furniture selection. Vikas Mittal, a professor at Rice, predicts that Starbuck’s new logo, which is curvier that the old one, should help it as it moves into overseas markets. He is quoted in a Rice press release as having “found that when angular logos were changed into rounded logos, they were more acceptable in interdependent and collectivist cultures – often found in Asian countries, such as India and China- than in Western countries, which tend to have a more independent or individualistic culture.”

A space with only curvy elements would be oppressive, as would one in which all lines and planes meet at right angles, so a combination of both is important. As you fine-tune the mix in the sofas and wallpapers and upholstery and everything else that goes into your home or office, consider which should predominate to support the sort of experiences you want to have in that space.

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

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