Office Space designed by the Senses

Architectural Periodal: Arcade

Thesis: Designing an environment that engages and stimulates employees through the fives senses leads to a more productive work environment.

Since the invention of the cubicle, mundane office life has plagued the working environment. This day in age employers have made efforts in trying to make the office a more comfortable and productive working environment. Big corporations like Google have resulted in building office spaces essentially comprised of adult playgrounds so that their employees feel appreciated and enjoy their working environment. While this seems great, what about the small businesses that cannot afford to build outlandish spaces? Designing an environment that engages and stimulates employees through the five senses leads to a more productive work environment. Studies have shown that designs that respond to the five senses are more successful than those that do not. Jinsop Lee, an industrial designer, gave a TED talk in 2013 about design that engages the five senses. He explained through his own sensory chart as well as an experiment his friend did in college that activities that included all five senses resulted in better experiences than those that just responded to one or two. While in college Jinsop Lee was asked to design a clock that used the sun. While he thought he was clever in using a sunflower, his classmate was more successful because he used cups of scented oils to tell the time. By appealing to more than one sense, his classmate made a more desirable and ultimately more successful product. The ability to appeal to the senses in architecture, specifically in small offices, creates more engaging spaces that people want to inhabit.

Designing a space to be visually pleasing is one of the most common ways to create an interesting space. People like to be visually engaged with their environment and one of the simplest ways of doing this is by incorporating color. Offices are now painting their walls with bright colors both to “reflect employee tastes and personalities, plus company mission and culture” (Mokop). According to Heather Holz, bright colors have been proven to improve focus and energy. It has also been noted that different colors evoke different emotions and therefore their evocative nature should coordinate with the space in which it is used. For example, blue reflects a quality of calmness so it should be used in spaces like reading rooms or personal offices. Colors such as orange and yellow are more stimulating so they should be used in spaces such as conference rooms that generate a lot of discussion and collaboration (Holz). Another very important aspect to a healthy and productive office environment is natural light. Sabret Flocos said, “being able to see the outside world has restorative influences” (Holz). Stephen Kellert also argues that people enjoy spaces that utilize the natural environment and by using translucent materials such as glass to provide an abundance of natural light, the work environment will be enhanced. A well-lit working environment is not the only benefit from the use of natural light; it also can contribute to solar gain, which in turn lowers heating costs and creates a sustainable environment.

Superheroes, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Architects: Simon Bush-King Architecture + Urbanism
Superheroes, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Architects: Simon Bush-King Architecture + Urbanism

Due to the expense of glass and the constant need for cleaning, the firm Simon Bush-King Architecture & Urban used OSB with CNC cutouts to break up direct views and let light into the office space of Superheroes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The material not only provides economical benefits but also provides an interesting backdrop for the office.

After sight, sound is one of the most important factors to consider in an office. These days the open concept plan is popular because it allows flexibility and promotes collaboration; however, workers tend to get distracted or annoyed with phone calls and surrounding conversations when they are trying to work. One way of avoiding this would be to organize the space so that activities that require collaboration are grouped together in one space and work that requires more individual concentration in a more private setting. Another strategy is to add vegetation or use materials that absorb sound such as cork or felt. Hard surfaces reflect sound whereas plants absorb it (Fedele). Using plants to divide spaces will help damper the conversation in that area instead of reverberating throughout the office while also promoting a healthy environment through natural air filtration. Because plants require constant maintenance and do not absorb a majority of the sound, another option is to use felt.

Livefyre engineering department, San Francisco, California, Architects: Studio O+A
Livefyre engineering department, San Francisco, California, Architects: Studio O+A

Felt absorbs sound thus creating a quieter environment. Studio O+A used a felt installation on the ceiling in the startup company Livefyre’s engineering workspace. The engineering department wanted the best of both worlds, collaborative and individual spaces in one. To create the individual spaces they designed soundproof booths in the walls that are both silent and comfortable.

Out the five senses taste is the most difficult to design for, but if taste is not taken literally, but rather the sensation of taste, people will associate this sensation with specific instances. If literally tasting architecture is out of the question then what taste reminds us of should be considered. Certain textures and colors can remind workers of food or the feeling of food, like a rich cream color could remind one of ice cream. As Junhani Pallasmaa explains, “vision becomes transferred to taste as well; certain colours and delicate details evoke oral sensations.” These techniques could be used in the break room of the office so a lunch break is more enjoyable. Another sense that tends to employ difficulties is smell mainly because people are sensitive changes in scents. However, the sense of smell is extremely powerful in triggering memory. “The most persistent memory of any space is often its smell” (Pallasmaa). One way to stimulate the sense of smell in the office is by lighting candles or by having certain potted plants that give off a pleasant aroma. The use of plants also doubles as a sound barrier therefore the senses of sound and smells are appealed to creating a more dynamic space. Other tactics such as releasing different scents throughout the day will keep employees alert and deter watching the clock.

Evernote atrium space, San Francisco California, Architects: Studio O+A
Evernote atrium space, San Francisco California, Architects: Studio O+A

In the case of Evernote, a small software company in San Francisco, they placed a café at the entrance with a barista that also functions as receptionist. By placing a café at the entrance, people know when they smell coffee or pastries they are near the entrance.

Livefyre, San Francisco, California, Architects: Studio O+A




People are fascinated by the sense of touch hence the creation of the Please Touch Me Museum. Texture can really set the mood for a space. Carpet and wood set a homey feeling whereas steel, glass, and hard stone have a cold, harder feel to it. Livefyre’s office creates a homey feeling for its employees by using wood and different carpets. Designing for touch is important because people are in constant contact with the world around them so creating a space that is comfortable to the touch reflects people’s mood.

Creating an enjoyable and comfortable workspace for employees is the most important thing a company can do and as designers we have the ability to put this thought into action. Designing spaces that focus on all of the senses could lead to innovative office strategies. By stimulating workers through the five senses and providing an engaging environment people actually want to work in, office morale increases which leads to higher productivity.

Featured Image: Google in Dublin

Architects: Carmenized Evolution


Moskop, Susan. More buisnesses wear their personalities on their walls. Chicago Tribune, 2015. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

Fedele, Angela. Four Ways to Reduce Office Noise. Sourceable, 26 June 2015. Web. 22 Oct. 22015.

Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. London: Academy Editions, 1996.

Holz, Heather. Sensory Architecture: Redefining How One Interprets Space. Fargo: North Dakota State U, 2011. “Engage the 5 Senses to Inspire Workplace Productivity.” Convene.N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.

Kellert, Stephen R. Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection. Washington: Island, 2005. Print.

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