The Saving Grace of Good Design

Updated: 2013-03-24 07:55

(The New York Times)

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The Saving Grace of Good Design

A thoughtfully designed building, a well-engineered car or a beautifully decorated home can all stimulate the pleasure centers in our brains. We're also drawn to certain colors and shapes, though for a long time we weren't sure why.

That is starting to change, Lance Hosey reported in The Times, as the science of design is growing more sophisticated. German researchers found last year that the color green can motivate us and make us more creative. "We associate verdant colors with food-bearing vegetation - hues that promise nourishment," Mr. Hosey wrote.

Windows that look out on landscapes facilitate patient recovery in hospitals, student learning in classrooms and worker productivity in offices, Mr. Hosey reported.

Another revelation scientists discovered is based on simple geometry, in the shape of a "golden rectangle." "Subtract a square from a golden rectangle, and what remains is another golden rectangle, and so on and so on," Mr. Hosey wrote.

Some of the most beloved designs in history follow the golden rectangle's 5-by-8 proportions: the facades of the Parthenon and Notre Dame, the face of the Mona Lisa, the Stradivarius violin and the original iPod.

Now we are closer to understanding why: a scientist at Duke University in North Carolina found that our eyes can scan an image fastest when its proportions mimic the golden rectangle.

There is also growing evidence that smart design can reduce aberrant behavior. Psychiatric hospitals try to identify patients who may be aggressive and train staff to reduce violent incidents. But these approaches are not enough, as the number of aggressive events in care facilities appears to be increasing, Roger Ulrich, a professor of architecture in Sweden, reported in The Times. Research suggests that hospitals can be designed to reduce violence and these adaptations do not cost significantly more money.

A psychiatric hospital in Gothenburg that opened in 2006 incorporated spaces that minimize noise and crowding, shared rooms with movable seating to give patients control over their space, and offered more natural light. It reported significantly fewer aggressive incidents, Professor Ulrich reported.

"Evidence from myriad studies and design research strongly supports the notion that architectural design can reduce violence," he wrote.

Times columnist James Stewart visited Google's office in New York recently, which at first glance - scribbling on the walls, roaming dogs, engineers walking on treadmills in front of computer screens and workstations seemingly made out of children's toys - struck him as "some kind of high-tech refugee camp."

But Google being Google, there is a method - and research and data - behind the madness. The company's headquarters occupy a full city block in a former shipping complex in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. Craig Nevill-Manning, a New Zealand native and the company's engineering director in Manhattan, said he pushed for the building because it was near where workers wanted to live and the amount of space per floor (over two hectares) would allow for the chance encounters the company believes give it an edge.

Among innovations that have come from seemingly random office conversations are the Google Art Project, which is putting thousands of museum works online, and enhancements to the company's advertising platforms.

"Google's success depends on innovation and collaboration," Mr. Nevill-Manning told Mr. Stewart. "Everything we did was geared toward making it easy to talk. Being on one floor here removed psychological barriers to interacting."

A Google spokesman told Mr. Stewart that "we're trying to push the boundaries of the workplace."

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(China Daily 03/24/2013 page9)