Sight. Sound. Touch. Taste. Smell.

Every sense has the power to influence how we perceive the world and how we remember experiences. So what if a space was designed with all five senses in mind? Would that make us happier? More productive? More engaged?

These questions have been examined by numerous researchers, most famously perhaps by designer Jinsop Lee who, in a 2013 TED talk, postulates that the best designs appeal to all (or most) of our senses. Corporate interior designers—like FOX Architects and Gensler—have been exploiting the unique ability of senses to evoke a range of emotional responses. Sensory design elements—colors, lighting, sounds, textures and smells—are now purposefully adapted to enhance the work environment and increase productivity.

Here’s a look at how the 5 senses impact employee performance and how you can strategically incorporate sensory design in your workplace.


Sight

The easiest sense to appeal to, sight is manipulated perhaps most obviously by implementing color psychology.

According to global design firm HOK, brighter colors (such as reds, blues and greens) are conducive to higher focus and task accuracy. Blue is associated with calm, promoting mental clarity, control and creative thinking.

Citrus hues like yellow and orange, stimulating colors by nature, help people feel more alert, allowing for clear decision making and encouraging lively discussions. Marigold Orange, for instance, is featured prominently at our Grand Central conference center, designed by Gensler.

“Bold and bright colors in high-impact areas help stimulate creativity and energy levels,” affirms Gensler’s Brand Design Director Beth Novitsky.

By using color strategically and following the basic principles of color psychology, you can promote desired behaviors: whether having blue walls in your segregated, quiet rooms to promote tranquility, or bright colored furnishings in your communal, public areas to boost social exchanges.

Another essential component of sight is access to natural light. In a recent article in Psychology Today, researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago found that there is “a strong relationship between workplace daylight exposure and office workers’ sleep, activity and quality of life.”

Natural light is, without a doubt, the most popular request by meeting planners we’ve worked with. Sabret Flocos, Principal at FOX Architects (the firm behind our Tysons Corner meeting center), says that “being able to see the outside world has restorative influences.” Recognizing the importance of sunlight, Sabret and the FOX team ensured that our DC conference center featured “plenty of natural light and windows,” using glass walls for the sides of the rooms wherever possible.

 

Natural light and the 5 senses at work

 

Studies have shown that focusing on natural light can not only help improve employee mood and productivity, it can also help you save on cooling and heating costs. Novitsky utilized a series of clear and frosted patterns on glass in our 101 Park Ave location in order to “activate conference room fronts while maintaining visibility and allowing light to penetrate throughout.”

By increasing natural sunlight or incorporating daylight harvesting systems in your workspace, you can improve the well-being and productivity of your employees or guests, all while cutting down your energy bill.

And finally, an easy way to introduce visual interest in an office is by incorporating wall art. Artwork that features interesting or thought-provoking subject matters not only infuses your space with character, it also stimulates discussion and inspires creativity. By working with a corporate art curator, you can select artwork that conveys your company culture and branding, sparks employee imagination, and supplements your CSR programs by supporting local, emerging artists (see: our partnership with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council).

 

Sound

Poor acoustics have been known to cause students to miss 50% of what their teachers say. But what about sound pollution at the workplace? According to a recent study, if you can hear someone talking while you’re reading or writing, your productivity can dip by up to 66%. Sound consultants like Julian Treasure have been calling attention to the “invisible architecture” of sound.

“We experience every space in five senses so it’s strange that architects design just for the eyes,” he says. “Sound in a space affects us profoundly. It changes our heart rate, breathing, hormone secretion, brain waves, it affects our emotions and our cognition.”

His research suggests that trying to perform knowledge-based tasks in a space in which other people’s conversations are clearly audible is difficult, with productivity being degraded by up to two thirds. Treasure’s whitepaper Building in Sound also found that sound masking technology improved employee focus by 47% and short term memory accuracy by almost 10%.

The dilemma today is that while the trend of shared work spaces and open offices fosters a culture of communication and social interaction, it also contributes to employee dissatisfaction with speech privacy and concentration. For solutions, you can study the General Services Administration (GSA)’s excellent whitepaper Sound Matters, which offers designers an exhaustive checklist for success in achieving acoustic comfort in the modern office.

 

Touch

Our sense of touch is closely associated with the emotion of comfort and warmth—or lack thereof.

We may be able to immediately pinpoint what makes an office look good but identifying why it feels good is another story. It’s a well-known fact that natural materials like wood and textiles like the soft wool in a shag rug are often associated with a “warm, cozy feeling.” On the other hand, materials like metal and plastic can convey sterility and coldness and are generally not inviting.

Haptic (or tactile) design is a relatively new field, focusing on mobile technology. However, some designers are advocating for a greater diversity of textures when designing office spaces. The key is to create balance, carefully selecting complementary textures (balance out a rough, reclaimed wood desk with a smooth, even-surfaced chair in a bright hue).

 

The 5 senses and work productivity

 

Elements that can add texture to a meeting or office space include:

  • Textiles- rugs, carpets
  • Furniture- tables, chairs, lamps
  • Artwork- paintings, sculptures, wallpaper
  • Flowers and plants

Aside from providing texture, color, and a pleasant scent, flowers and plants have also been shown to boost cognitive function.

 

Taste

While the sense of taste may not be directly related to productivity, the ingredients in your office lunch can certainly impact your alertness levels.

According to this study, a wandering mind is key to creativity. However, drinking too much caffeine can make you too focused. Their solution? Trick yourself by drinking decaf (but imagine it’s caffeinated).

There’s also the issue of sugar crashes, a common side effect of carbohydrate-heavy office meals. The best way to curb food-induced energy dips is to eat meals prepared with ingredients that have a low glycemic index (think chicken and avocado sandwiches, or fish with brown rice and vegetables).

 

Smell

Often paired with the sense of taste, smell is arguable the most indirectly powerful of all senses, as the olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system, the emotional and memory center of the brain.

Scent marketing is growing in popularity, with retailers, hotels and restaurants hiring scent companies in the hopes that distinctive, carefully selected scents will help boost consumer spending, attract new customers and create a memorable brand experience. “Pleasant, subtle scents lift our moods and impact buying behavior,” claims Donna Sturgess, president of Buyology, a neurological marketing firm. “Brands that have found the right ambient scent have seen results as high as double-digit increases in brand preference.”

You can activate these scents with strategically placed candles, oil burners, or—for more sophisticated scent delivery—high tech services provided by scent marketing companies like ScentAir or Air Aroma.

 

A Holistic Work Experience

Human experiences are derived from all the senses, not just sight. And we are most effective, creative and engaged when a variety of our senses are stimulated through our interaction with the colors, scents and textures that make up our physical surroundings.

A comprehensive and cohesive sensory experience can ignite the imagination and endow spaces with a sense of peaceful calm or vibrant energy. Most importantly, employees and meeting planners must be given control and flexibility over their workspace layout and design.

That is why, at Convene, our meeting rooms can be customized to suit our client’s desired outcomes and specific needs. In the end, our biggest goal is that our meeting spaces convey a sense of home.