tunnel vision vs. imagination: a designer’s cheat sheet

January 23, 2014

by william choukeir

an uncontrollable cough wakes you in the middle of the night. you look to your side and see your wife coughing too. it takes you a moment to realize that you’re inhaling smoke.

​without thinking twice, you turn on the lights and run to your son’s room. you pick up his limp body and make it to the front door. you turn the door handle and pull. nothing. the smoke is building up. the flames are getting closer. in your panic, you keep turning the door handle repeatedly, harder and harder. you don’t know if your son is unconscious or sleeping. you start violently kicking the door.

if this was any other uneventful morning, you would’ve been relaxed. without thinking, you would’ve already known that you lock the door every evening and keep the key in the door for easy unlocking.

a negative environment can make simple tasks difficult [1].
a positive one can make difficult tasks easier [1].

in psychology, this is called ‘affect’: when something has an emotional impact on you [2]—not to be confused with ‘effect’. affect influences thinking, which in turn influences behavior [2]. fire causes panic, which interferes with our problem solving ability, which interferes with the simple activity of unlocking a door.

can your workplace be slowly killing you?
what happens if you’re living or working in a space that has a subtle negative affect—stressing on ‘subtle’. it definitely isn’t enough to cause an all out panic attack, but it has been proven to contribute to increased stress [3]. a scientific study tracked 60 employees for almost 2 years and determined that this negative affect is big enough to increase the risk of heart disease [3].

what if a change of workspace costs you your creativity?
at least 3 separate studies show how spaces can help us become more creative. spaces and colors influence ‘how’ we think [4,5].

spaces that create a negative affect reinforce ‘depth thinking’—AKA ‘tunnel vision’. it helps us focus on small details and repetitive action [4,5].

spaces that create a positive affect reinforce ‘breadth thinking’, imagination, and our ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated subjects [4,5]. a study shows that individuals surrounded by positive affect can make 25% more connections than those in a neutral space [5]. no wonder Google, Apple, and Pixar use positive affect to drive innovation.

here’s a quick cheat sheet on factors that contribute to both positive and negative affect. don’t be fooled by its simplicity. this isn’t your cliché pseudoscience color theory. these are gathered from the proven results of independent scientific studies [1,3,4,5]. use these responsibly.

positive affect

positive affect can make difficult tasks easier. positive affect boosts imagination, creativity, and problem solving. anything that contributes to relaxation promotes a positive affect; namely:
• high ceilings, large spaces, and openness
• blue colors, sky, and open views to the outside

negative affect

negative affect can make simple tasks difficult. boosts attention to details and promotes tunnel vision. can be beneficial for straight forward and repetitive tasks that require sustained accuracy. a subtle balance needs to be achieved to promote focus without paralyzing the individual; setting a house on fire would be considered overkill. use the right balance of the following to create spaces that individuals can visit when focus is required:
• low ceilings and closed spaces
• red colors and their association with danger

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1• Emotion and design: Attractive things work better. Norman, D. A. Interactions Magazine. 2002; ix (4): 36-42.
2• Does Negative Affect Always Narrow and Positive Affect Always Broaden the Mind? Considering the Influence of Motivational Intensity on Cognitive Scope. E. Harmon-Jones, P. A. Gable, T. F. Price. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2013 August; 22 (4): 301–307.
3• Effects of the Physical Work Environment on Physiological Measures of Stress. J. F. Thayer, B. Verkuil, J. F. Brosschot, K. Kampschroer, A. West, C. Sterling, I.C. Christie, D. Abernethy, J. J. Sollers, G. Cizza, A. H. Marques, E. M. Sternberg. Eur J Cardiovasc Prev Rehabil. 2010 August; 17(4): 431–439.
4• Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances. R. Mehta, R. J. Zhu. Science. 2009 February; 323(918): 1226–1229.
5• The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use. J. M. Levy, R. J. Zhu. Journal of Consumer Research. 2007; 34(2): 174-186.

One Response to “tunnel vision vs. imagination: a designer’s cheat sheet”

  1. […] and in between, what about a creative clientele visiting a space for that spark of inspiration? then fabrics are your friend. they’ve been shown to inspire more creativity and flexibility.3 consider combining them with a hint of wood, as being relaxed has been shown to increase creativity. […]

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