Form & Feeling


AIA DESIGN THEORY – December 2013
Edited by Rebecca Falzano | Photography Nicole Wolf

Architect Judy Johnson on how design can influence our behavior  

As designers of the environments in which people live and work, architects are directly involved in influencing human behavior. Design of a building affects perceptions and attitudes. The exterior architecture is the first aspect of a structure that people experience when they approach a building, and most of us know that aesthetically pleasing, well-proportioned structures foster feelings of security, comfort, and privacy. Not only that, but well-designed spaces can also have a positive impact on learning, healing, and efficiency. According to Judy Johnson of Harriman Architects and Engineers, however, the first perception of a building is only the beginning of how design influences our reactions. “As architects, we have a responsibility to understand the effects our designs have on the people who inhabit the spaces we create. In order to design a positive environment, we need to understand the experience we want to evoke, the amount of interaction we want to encourage between people, and how the design can support the activity occurring in the space,” she says. MH+D asked her to tell us more.

Q:  How do you evoke a particular feeling in architecture?

A: As architects, one of the first things that must be understood before beginning any design is what type of feeling we want people to experience when they use a space. This understanding really begins to inform the design direction and decisions. Our physical environment has an influence on our well-being, and it can have a positive or negative impact on our demeanor and how we relate to others in the space. As an example, a space with natural light evokes feelings of happiness and lightheartedness, a dark space creates a sense of a more serious nature, a space with strong geometric forms can create a sense of energy, and a high space creates a sense of awe. In addition to the shape of a space, the color, lighting, materials, and acoustics have an impact on the mood of the occupants as well. The same space can feel vastly different from day to night or season to season. The architect uses the relationship between form and feeling in a variety of combinations to promote a reaction. For instance, a medium-sized space can appear very large and grand when you have to enter it through a small, constricted entry. This entry sequence evokes a powerful reaction from people when well designed and detailed.

Q: How do architects design for interaction between occupants?

A: Another behavior aspect that informs the design is how the occupants relate to each other. The arrangement of partitions, rooms, doors, windows, and hallways serves to encourage or hinder social interaction. When designing a space, architects are aware of and distinguish between intimate space, personal space, social space, and public space. 

Q: How does this translate in your work?

A: At our firm we work on a lot of different building types that can affect hundreds and possibly thousands of people every day. We consider all of these influences either individually or in combinations to inform the design. For instance, when we design a school we create an environment with natural light that has proven to increase learning and encourages the development of good social skills. In the design of health care facilities we strive to create environments that promote wellness and alleviate stress for the occupants by using a warm materials palette and natural elements to increase the comfort of the patients and physician alike. In office settings we look for opportunities to increase efficiency by balancing the private work spaces with collaborative areas. 

Share The Inspiration