a man sitting on his bed with a laptop as the light switch flicks on and off
Architecture and lighting can have a direct impact on your mood and well-being. Illustration by (c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada


How Architecture and Design Can Impact Your Mental Health

'Architecture is that which embraces us.'

What is the first thing you see when you wake up, even before you look at your phone — your room! How does your room make you feel? How does it affect your mood in the morning? Our environment plays a large role in our mental health, from the colour of the walls to the placement of the furniture. This isn’t a new idea. For centuries, the Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui and Indian theories of Vaastu have focused on how the structure, colour, furniture and other design elements of a space make the occupant feel.  

“Not only is interior design very impactful on an individual’s mental health, but even during a therapy session it plays an effective role to facilitate healing for a patient,” Mumbai-based psychologist, Krisha Shah, told Re:Set. Lighter colours in a room can help a person feel positive and calmer. Dark hues may make them feel moody.” 

A sentiment echoed by Australian architect and founder of AK+, Alan Kueh. “Architecture is that which embraces us, and therefore undoubtedly affects us mentally in many ways,” he reflected.

A scale of colours with emotions such as anger, anxiety, happiness, calm, stress and relax against a peach background.

Colours invoke different feelings in people which can have an impact one’s mental well-being. Illustration by (c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada

So, what are the guidelines for it and why do they matter?

One of the first things you notice when you enter a space is colour, and it can change the complete look and feel (pun intended) of a space. Kueh tells us that colour and how it makes us feel also depends on individuals and varies across cultures. For Shah, noticing that her clients don’t feel reassured in rooms with dark, angry colours has been a revelation.

“Furniture also makes a difference.”

“Lighting is key, as it creates the mood and ambience that one generally associated with the use of the space,” Kueh told Re:Set. Apart from living spaces, lighting makes a significant difference in working environments as well. Studies show that natural light improves productivity in an office and can promote alertness. A lack of natural light has also been linked to symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, a depressive disorder caused in the fall and winter months of the year. Treatment includes light therapy, to replicate the sunlight from the summer months. 

“Furniture also makes a difference,” Shah told Re:Set. “If the room has a lot of furniture, it’s going to be a distraction. It’s also [going to be] difficult for me as a therapist to help my client focus.” 

Minimalism in space design is built around the concept that less is better. Minimalists are proponents of a clutter-free lifestyle and believe that reduced clutter leads to fewer stimuli for the brain leading to decreased stress and anxiety. This is connected to the idea that there is a strong link between physical and mental clutter. Research shows that a messy environment drains your energy, lowers self-image and negatively affects your mood. 

A spacious and lush residential area designed by Alan and his team keeping in mind the needs of the local community. Photo courtesy: James Kuah

One the other hand, the Danish concept, hygge, which translates to ‘coziness’ focuses on creating an environment that promotes snug, relaxed comfort. Designers achieve it by adding soft objects like fabric over wood, rugs on the floor, and just the right amount of light to make the space look inviting and restful. 

“Schools also need to be tailored according to students’ ages and needs.”

How can architecture and design help improve learning? What about learning spaces such as schools? “Such spaces should cover two main aspects — comfort and a non-conformist approach. I would prefer children to be taught to challenge the norms to find the fertile ground between utility and creativity in our living spaces,” Kueh explained. “Furthermore, schools also need to be tailored according to students’ ages and needs.” He elaborated on the idea by referencing a school created in a circular form by a Japanese architect, Takaharu Tezuka. “The idea is simple: young children like to run around in circles,” Kueh pointed out.

Also read: More Than Just Face Masks: Breaking Down the Different Types of Self-Care

Adding to this, Shah reinforced the aspect of comfort in space design by pointing out that “light colours should be used in greater parts and furniture should be designed in a manner that children are comfortable, encouraging them to pay attention and focus on their goals.” Organizations such as Envoplan specifically work on interior design in schools, focusing on creating a learning space that is vibrant, motivational and welcoming. The team has design consultants who work with school staff to spruce up the classroom through traditional as well as innovative design solutions such as teaching walls, which are compact spaces that are designed to accommodate every tool a teacher may need in their classroom. 

A wide shot of a Japanese circular designed school for children

A kindergarten school in Tokyo designed in a circular format to allow students to run around. Photo courtesy: Fuji Kindergarten, Katsuhisa Kida

“More awareness and conversations on the topic [of space design and mental health] are essential,” Shah said. She reckons that therapy rooms and architecture have a long way to go in terms of focusing on mental health. “I haven’t observed any therapist who’s focusing so much on the room or its design [in India].”

And what is mental well-being without personal growth! When asked about it, Kueh shared that his philosophy as an architect is “to help the client grow within that space.” With changing family dynamics, the rise of remote work and changes in lifestyle, Kueh’s idea encourages designers to create interiors that evolve with a client’s changing needs from the space. He encourages them to chip in too, saying that “we need to inject our own character, adaptive to the habits and our way of life [into our spaces].”

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How Architecture and Design Can Impact Your Mental Health