Sensory design in the workplace

Sensory design in the workplace

The success of a company demands the success of its workforce. But what is it that makes a workforce perform better? What makes individual employees feel better in the workplace? Those who practice ‘sensory design’ know that workplaces themselves are part of the equation.

We are a product of our environments. Over time, our surroundings define us in minuscule ways. They influence our actions and decisions in ways we cannot even detect. In the workplace, designs which stir up our senses are more likely to create better results.

It’s not simply about what we do and how well we perform at work. It’s also about how we feel. Our moods and feelings. Our frame of mind. Our general sense of well being. Each are factors conducive to a better working life, and each can be improved by a sympathetic workspace. Such is the theory behind sensory design. But what exactly is sensory design in the workplace, and how does it function in practice?


Sensory design

The qualities of our physical environment seep through our senses and influence the quality of both our work and our working lives. Office environments designed for our senses can make us work harder, work better, work happier. Whereas offices designed with inadequate lighting, uninspiring colours, harsh materials, or cramped spaces make us perform less and feel worse. We mirror our surroundings, subconsciously taking on both its positive and negative features. When our workspaces are designed specifically to stimulate and delight all five of our senses, they help us feel more present, more aware, more welcome, and more content.

This concept is fleshed out by Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka in their book on the topic, Sensory Design. Their goal is to formulate and promote “a new philosophy of design that both celebrates our sensuous occupation of the built environment and creates more humane design”. Such designs are not just to be contemplated, but also felt. They are not simply for our eyes, they are for our ears, our noses, our fingertips, and our bodies.

This concept raises important questions about the nature of our working environments and the role of our senses in a working context. What influence do the senses have on our performance and wellbeing at work? How can we make the most of our senses in working environments? Can we structure our workspaces to stimulate these senses?

The structure and function of Uncommon workspaces serve to directly answer these questions. But here we will elaborate on this complex relation between sensory experience, office design, work performance, and wellbeing.



Sight is the most immediate of our senses and the primary medium for designers and architects. Our eyes are sensitive to different colours, shapes, and patterns. By using combinations of visual elements proven to evoke certain feelings designers can define the purpose of a space. Bright colours can make define the common room feel more social, whereas neutral colours can help aid concentration and tailor focus.

Likewise, adequate lighting is linked to an improved sense of wellbeing in the workplace. Light brightens and freshens a space, making us feel good. Artificial lighting that is too harsh causes headaches and eye strain. Too dim and it could cause drowsiness and a lack of focus. On the other hand, natural lighting has been linked to better sleep and better overall health. Buildings with sensory design would have uniform and well-placed natural lighting in order to promote a healthier and more productive workforce.

Nature excites our senses like nothing else. A brisk walk through the countryside brings many sights, sounds, and scents into perfect harmony, helping to lift our spirits and improve our mood. So incorporating natural elements into the workplace makes it feel more healthy and balanced. Light pouring through every window, wood coating every surface, plants adorning every desk. Offices which invite the outdoors inside feel more open, which in turn makes work feel better. Our workspace in Borough immediately greets the eyes with a flurry of plants and natural tones, bringing a sense of calm and serenity that cuts through the restless atmosphere of the capital. What more could you want?



There is a relation between sight and touch that offices can tap into through sensory design. The sight of certain colours and materials immediately bring to mind a corresponding feeling. Warm tones bring feeling of relaxation, whereas bright tones arrest our focus and attention. Marble and quartz have a smooth appearance that is bound up with their smooth textures: simply looking at them evokes the sensation of touching them.

Designers can incorporate these visual textures into workplaces to make the people within feel lively, motivated, calm, happy. A balance of textures will make it feel more calming and inviting. You should use a range of surface materials that excite our senses of touch and sight. Ergonomic furniture that aids our posture and eases our bodies. Tactile designs that coat the room with a sense of comfort. And most importantly, a sensory workspace that makes us feel good in our skin.



Although taste cannot be implemented into the physical design of a building and its structure, our experience of the building and our state of mind within it is nonetheless influenced by taste. The engineering professor Derek Clements-Croome claims that taste (along with scent) creates “sensory experiences that help to mold our attitudes and expectancies about the environment”. Positive experiences within a certain space translate into positive perceptions of the space itself. For instance, the taste of a meal can influence our wider experience of a restaurant.

In the workplace, access to healthy foods and drinks gives workers a regular dose of motivation. Certain drinks are better for increasing focus, improving memory, and making us happy. Balanced diets are integral to our overall health, which closely relates to our work ethic. How? When your health and wellbeing is high, your work output is high too. And happy people generally have more control over their work ethic. Workspaces should work to encourage healthy and motivating tastes into their sensory design schemes.



Odours are ultimately subjective phenomena, but there are general trends which suggest some are more conducive to concentration and wellbeing than others. Peppermint aids focus, rosemary improves memory, and lemon increases accuracy. Integrating these scents into the design of a workspace will lead to a better overall performance and a welcoming atmosphere. But it goes a lot deeper than this.

Scents evoke memories and feelings. They can instantly bring us into a certain frame of mind. The smell of flowers brings us out into nature, whereas the smell of beer takes us to the pub.

Being so close to imagination and feeling, scents can foster moods better than most senses. Despite its capacity to influence mood, our sense of smell is often neglected in the workplace. But working under the influence of pleasant scents and positive feelings is guaranteed to impact the productivity of a workforce. We perform tasks better with the right smells surrounding us.



You can believe what we say because we practice what we preach. Here at Uncommon, we care about how you feel at work. Our workspaces are designed with your wellbeing in mind. Every single detail helps create an environment in which you can feel good about where and how you work. From lighting and noise levels to ergonomics and air quality. Visit our locations in Borough, Highbury & Islington, and Fulham to experience our unique vision of working life.


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