Health and Wellness in Design

Are we thinking about the relationship between design and wellness in the right way?

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The interaction between well-being and design has been a hot topic for some time. Living through the pandemic has put this relationship into sharp focus and reshaped the discourse around it. The spaces one typically associates with health and wellness are hospitals and clinics, places that take care of us when we are sick or in need of specific care. In reality, health and wellness in design are intended to keep us healthy. Indeed, to keep us out of these places!

After the last two years, most of us probably associate health and wellness with factors like contagion and infection, viral loads, vaccine effectiveness, and the like. These are all important variables in the process of planning and designing a space, a process that has undergone intense scrutiny and led to new practices and policies that may remain for the foreseeable future. However, as we are starting to evaluate the toll that COVID has taken on our global well-being, beyond the tragic number of hospitalizations and deaths a different picture is emerging.

Traditionally the focus has been on physical health, as it is easier to identify metrics and rules—referred to as “hard data”—to protect this aspect of our well-being. But designing spaces that make us feel well holistically goes way beyond that. Only recently we have started to include mental health, which deals with how our emotional, psychosomatic health and the consequences of physical factors can affect our mind. Here we begin to enter the realm of “soft data” where causal correlations are harder to prove and to name just a few elements, design focused on wellness involves lighting, materials, air and sound quality, studied color palettes, biophilic design (connecting architecture and nature), greenery, and outdoor–indoor space integration.

Wellness in a house in Tuscany.
Villa in Tuscany, Manciano, Italy, 2019, EFM Design and Pietro Todeschini. Photo © Simone Bossi

A holistic view of health at home and in the workplace

The quality of our spaces has a fundamental impact on individual well-being and the misalignment between needs and performance has contributed to an increase in stress. While this certainly has not been the only contributing factor, several research projects and surveys in the US saw the number of cases of depression increased worldwide after 2019, especially among low-income populations and younger generations, who mentioned suffering from “space inadequacy” more than any other group. Similar studies have shown the same happening worldwide.

The pandemic forced us to use homes as offices and the continuing overlap of spaces where we live and work will shape the evolution of hybrid work scenarios, a phenomenon that is bound to remain. Homes will continue to be second offices and will require a new series of attributes.

On the other hand, as companies are trying to lure us back to the office, they are assessing how the workplace can be viewed as a desirable destination and how the office can be transformed from simply being a place where one gets a job done to truly representing the center of a company’s culture. That is, a place that encourages  employees’ personal enrichment through knowledge transfer, education and the support of social circles, as well as the incorporation of studied elements from residential and hospitality design that make a place desirable. As always, design and policy will have to be integrated to reimagine a use of space that is both efficient and grants physical and emotional well-being.

 Asking the right questions

In general, our one-size-fits-all model of different, separate places for live–work had never been questioned before but this has emerged as less than ideal and certainly does not fit everybody. The pandemic has forced us to take a hard look at how we have been structuring our lives and allowed us to ask questions that nobody wanted to ask before because the answers seemed so complicated. But the overall reluctance of a full-time return to the office, as per any survey taken by a spectrum of companies, from real estate to government to consultancies to corporations themselves, show an overwhelming preference for the hybrid model.

If we think about our pre-pandemic “normal” life, there were many inefficiencies built into our routines that had never been addressed such as lengthy commutes to do work that did not require proximity to other coworkers or the continuously decreasing square footage allocated per person to save on real estate costs with negative consequences on mental health and productivity. In retrospect we can see that those spaces could have been designed differently for a blended workforce and different types of activities from the get-go.

Textile designs and wellness.
Textile design for Momentum, 2018, EFM Design. Photo courtesy EFM Design

On beauty

The popular motto “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it” is shortsighted. It addresses the hard-data based side of any issue, ignoring another wealth of information that comes from the “left side of the brain.” Here design can show its power as a discipline that straddles art and science, left and right brain, logic and emotion.

In closing, a few words in support of “beauty,” which is such a fickle term. In Le Corbusier’s words, “Beauty is the superfluous which is essential to the human spirit.” Difficult to define, we all know it when we see it. It is often viewed as a luxury, but I prefer to see it as thoughtfulness in thinking of design solutions that are informed by empathy—and generate well-being.

Main image: New York city interior, Ludlow Library, EFM Design, 2015. Photo © Genevieve Garruppo

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