How Do Our Physical Surroundings Shape Our Minds?

By adapting to innate human instincts, a well-designed space can impact our learning and stress.
Lisa Phillips, Associate Professor of Interior Design and Interior Architecture. Photo credit ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services.

Our physical environment isn’t just a backdrop for our experiences; the qualities of the space around us innately engages with some of our deepest senses, emotions, and intuitions, shaping the way we feel and experience the world.

Interior designer Lisa Phillips, NCIDQ, is closely familiar with how our environment shapes our experience. Her research encompasses how changes in the design of places like hospital waiting rooms can put people more at ease. She’s also dedicated to exploring new teaching methods to train the next generation of interior designers. In this Q&A, Phillips reveals how designers use space and material to their advantage to transform an environment, and discusses how she works to inspire the next generation of interior designers.

Q: Tell us a bit about your area of research.

A: I’m currently exploring environmental psychology — a discipline that studies the relationship between human beings and their surroundings — and how manufactured and natural spaces and materials affect those who use those places. I am interested in how sensory input specifically impacts the human experience and have worked extensively in the connection between textures and emotions. My research has shown that textured materials, like concrete, stone and wood, are often related to feeling of heaviness, strength, tradition and a connection to nature. Alternatively, smooth materials, like glass, metal or plastic, are associated with feelings of calmness, modernity, cleanliness, and artificiality. Many individual materials are characterized as warm or cold, as peaceful or welcoming, with a high degree of consistency. These associations are made whether a person is touching or simply viewing the materials in a room so the choices made by designers carry significant weight regarding how humans feel in the spaces we create.

Q: What’s one question you’re exploring currently?

A: I’m interested in how stress can be reduced through environmental changes to healthcare waiting areas. This was inspired by a studio project I currently teach where students design a tranquility pod to reduce stress for a user group of their choice. Working collaboratively, the academic departments of interior design, psychology, physical therapy, the emergency department (ED), and the research management office have come together to examine this issue with a grant sponsored by The Jefferson Institute for Smart and Healthy Cities. In the first phase of our study, our team surveyed approximately 126 participants in the ED waiting area. We assessed anxiety and participants’ reactions to various elements in the environment. The findings were used to inform three potential design schemes, which participants experienced through virtual reality or walk-throughs to gain additional feedback about preferences of patients, caregivers and staff in the waiting area. Our findings will be disseminated in 2024 in multidisciplinary publications and presentations.

Q: It sounds like student engagement is an important part of your research. How else do you focus on students in your work?

A: As an educator in the field of interior design, I’m naturally interested in andragogy, the art and science of learning, in contrast to pedagogy, the art and science of teaching. My research is centered on student learning and factors that directly affect education. For example, I care about what motivates students, how they work collaboratively, how assessment can provide insight into their design processes, and methods that produce more creative work. Incorporating technology into my courses allows me to accomplish many of these goals. I have used various methods of online peer review to keep independent classes connected, utilized virtual reality in both the conceptual and design development phases of the design studio, and I am beginning to explore the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in the classroom.

Photo credit ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services.

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research?

A: I’ve always enjoyed psychology. Both my andragogy and applied research topics are inspired by this interest. Designed spaces affect the people experiencing them on many levels. They can impact their mood, their emotions, and their level of engagement. A well-designed space can encourage lingering or socialization, but spaces that are not well considered can miss many small adjustments able to appeal to our innate human instincts. For example, people prefer the edges of rooms to wide open, exposed spaces, where they feel more vulnerable. This is why you often see the perimeter of restaurants requested before the central floor area. If booths are present, these are even more desirable, since the higher backs provide more security from unknown “threats.”

Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?

A: Collaborating with others. I enjoy learning from others, whether it be students, professionals, or colleagues. During an annual interior design/architecture collaboration in the spring I always gain new ideas and insight from the colleagues I collaborate with, and it re-invigorates my teaching every year! As for the students, I enjoy breaking them into small groups and asking for their opinions during critiques. They consistently bring in new ideas and ways to work and think in a fresh way that keeps me on my toes.

Q: What’s a unique fact, surprising statistic, or a myth about your study subject?

A: One popular myth is that interior design is just about selecting furniture, finishes and décor. It certainly includes these areas, but it’s a more complex and rich profession than many people realize, dealing with space planning, environmental psychology, ergonomics and a deep understanding of how humans experience space.

Q: What’s something you’re passionate about outside of your research?

A: Travel. I’ve enjoyed travelling since I studied abroad in college and continue to pursue destinations where I can immerse myself into new cultures. I’ve taken several groups of students abroad and it’s been a true joy for me to experience the world with them. I always try to seek out authenticity in the destinations I visit – shopping in local grocery stores, eating street food, visiting neighborhoods where the restaurants don’t provide English menus. When I can, I sketch, which is the best way to linger and soak in the experience. India, Thailand, Morocco, Cuba and Mexico are some of my favorite destinations so far.

Q: Who’s a role model or someone who shaped your research journey? Is there a piece of advice that stuck with you or that you try to pass on to young researchers?

A: I don’t know that I can point to just one person, because there are so many people that I bounce ideas off of, and they’re all incredibly insightful and valuable to my process. Some send inspiration my way, some offer technology help, some center me when I have too many ideas. If I have a piece of advice to impart, it would be to find the right people to surround yourself with, people you can be vulnerable with when everything isn’t going right, people you can both be sad with when your abstract doesn’t get accepted and those who will celebrate with you when you get published. Those who will elevate your ideas, but also those who will tell you when you are going down the wrong path. You need honest, true friends when researching. Find your people and know you are lucky when you have them.

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Design and Style, Science and Technology