Sunday morning, my wife and I walked to a coffee shop. I carried our 10 week old baby girl. It was my first Father’s Day. At the coffee shop we spoke with the manager, who had just dropped off his daughter for her first semester of college. It was a nice conversation followed by a nice gesture; he bought my coffee.
Throughout our lives, interactions with the people and objects around us are logged as memories. Depending on the emotional significance of those memories, something resonant of your past can revive sensations from another time and place. This is what was happening when the manager saw me carrying my daughter. As he was talking, I could tell by the look on his face, his love for his family was swelling inside. Remarkable, considering he was at work and away from his family.
Memories also define our expectations for the future. I went into that coffee shop with the expectation that I would have to pay for my coffee, so when the manager bought mine, my perception changed because my experience differed from my expectation. This caught my attention and left a stronger impression than if all had gone as I expected.
As a designer these concepts—expectation and experience—are important to consider when trying to understand how a user will perceive and react to a space. As an example, let’s explore how these concepts apply to the selection of flooring, which is an important part of every space we design.
Choose Honest Materials that Agree with the Senses
In many parts of the southeastern United States, where I live and work, hardwood flooring is common. We interact with it using at least three of our senses: sight, sound and touch. (I usually can’t “smell” and personally have never “tasted” a floor, but I don’t want to rule anything out just yet!)
Our first interaction with a space is usually visual, seeing the surface before we’re able to feel or hear it underfoot. That visual interaction ties into the memories of our experiences with hardwood floors and evokes an expectation of the sound of the floor giving beneath our weight as we walk on it and the natural feel of the wood.
But in some spaces, for practical reasons, wood flooring isn’t suitable. With good intention, we might consider using a product that looks like wood, but is actually something altogether different, such as wood-look ceramic tile. When we interact with a product like this, the things you feel and hear don’t align with what you see. Information from your different senses don’t match your expectation that they will, a conflict that must be resolved in your mind.
Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be much of a problem and the benefit of the desirable aesthetic might outweigh any distraction. The surprise to some of our senses may even be a desirable outcome in some circumstances. But when we’re looking at spaces used by people in a compromised mental state, this becomes a different equation.
Considerations for PTSD
One of my areas of focus is how design can facilitate therapy for combat veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An individual’s life experience determines how they perceive and therefore react to their surroundings.
The built environment shouldn’t attempt to change these reactions; it’s simply not possible to treat PTSD with a building. The role of a therapeutic environment is to facilitate, in concert with the psychologist, an expedient and comprehensive recovery.
Many veterans have learned to understand, from their time in combat, a misalignment of sensory information as a signal of danger. This can create an anxiety reaction that triggers PTSD symptoms, even in a predictably safe situation. When we’re designing to facilitate therapy, it’s important to avoid materials that have a higher potential to be distracting, which could slow the therapeutic healing process.
A space comprised of honest materials helps by avoiding unnecessary and unproductive anxiety, leaving more focus and attention for the healing process. Confronting one’s traumatic memories isn’t without anxiety, so by avoiding materials that create conflicts in the mind, we can help limit anxiety to that associated with the problematic psychological condition, that which is productive and part of the healing process.