Biophilia Effect: Improving Your Designs With Nature

To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.
—Jane Austen

How often have you heard the advice to take a long walk in order to overcome writer’s block or to focus better on a problem you’re trying to solve? Human beings have an affinity for nature. In most cultures throughout history a fondness for nature is easily observed and nature is often prescribed as a healing therapy.

The biophilia effect states that environments rich in views and imagery of nature can reduce stress and increase focus and concentration. Since we’d like our audience to be more focused while interacting with our designs, it might make sense to take advantage of the biophilia effect and incorporate nature into our designs where appropriate.

Lake in Lafayette Colorado

What is the Biophilia Effect?

A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.
—Walt Whitman

In a housing relocation study those children who experienced the greatest increase in nature views also made the greatest gains in standard tests of attention. Similar results have been seen in college students with windows that offer more views of nature. Natural scenes and imagery seem to provide a reliable and consistent source of emotional, cognitive, and physical benefits.

Nature has often been used as therapy for people with physical and mental health problems and even to simply improve mood. Think of spa retreats and mental health facilities located in the country. Think about dolphin therapy or something as simple as owning a pet.

In biophilic spaces, patients recover more quickly, students learn better, retail sales are higher, workplace productivity goes up, and absenteeism goes down. Sometimes the differences are up to 15 or 20%, which is huge (and retail sales can increase by a staggering 40% just from daylighting)

In the mid 80s Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson introduced the biophilia theory, which suggests that human beings thrive in nature and suffer in its absence. Since that time studies like the ones mentioned above have offered convincing evidence to support the theory.

What’s perhaps most interesting, especially for our purposes, is that the biophilia effect doesn’t require real natural environments. Imagery of nature is enough to see the effect. Looking through the window at the mountains or seeing a photograph of the mountains on your wall will both have a similar effect to make you feel better and improve our concentration. An artificial plant will have a similar effect to a real plant.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater

Biophilia in Architecture

In recent years buildings have been including more and more natural elements into their designs. It’s been demonstrated that doing so has measurable benefits in productivity, emotional well-being, stress reduction, learning, and healing. Some ways architects take advantage of the biophilia effect (PDF) are:

  • Filling spaces with daylight through skylights and windows
  • Presenting more views of the outside world
  • Indoor gardens
  • Fountains and garden ponds
  • Parks and other outdoor gathering places in urban neighborhoods

Buildings that connect people with nature increase performance

Researchers from the Rocky Mountain Institute and Carnegie Mellon University have reported significant improvements in productivity as a result of green building features, including daylighting and views to the outdoors

I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.
—Frank Lloyd Wright

Fallingwater Livingroom-2.jpg

Perhaps the poster child for biophilia in architecture (PDF) is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. Wright promoted the idea of organic architecture which seeks

harmony between human habitation and the natural world through design approaches so sympathetic and well integrated with its site that buildings, furnishings, and surroundings become part of a unified, interrelated composition

It’s not only architects though. As individuals we do things that perhaps subconsciously take advantage of the biophilia effect.

  • Reduce stress with Zen sand gardens
  • Use fire for cooking and heat
  • View tropical fish tanks to reduce blood pressure and increase relaxation
  • Purchase artwork and photographs of natural scenery

A few questions arise in regards to nature, first being what is nature? If you were born and raised entirely in a city environment is it possible that urban imagery may be more natural to you? Do cultural factors and individual preferences take part in defining what is and isn’t nature?

Just as nature is filled with tranquility it can also be filled with hazards. There are many things in nature people fear or feel anxiety about. Spiders, snakes, heights are a few things that come to mind. Some people exhibit biophobic tendencies and may prefer to avoid nature altogether.

For the most part natural scenes and imagery will have a positive impact, but it’s useful to consider the possibilities where it may not be the case. In general there is an increasing amount of evidence to support the biophilia effect as one with positive benefits for most people.

Garden Of The Gods

How to Take Advantage of the Biophilia Effect in Your Designs

First, decide if the biophilia effect will really add something to your design. The biophilia effect is most useful when healing, learning, and concentration are important. Is your design looking to heal or teach? Do you need visitors to be able to focus and concentrate more?

In many cases you’ll be able to answer yes to the previous questions, but what if your design is trying to get a visitor to take an impulsive action? In that case do you want them concentrating more? Is healing or learning important? As with most design principles think about whether the biophilia effect is important to your design goals.

With the assumption that you do want to take advantage of the biophilia effect what can you do? Obvious things are to use imagery and other touches of nature to your design. Use photos and illustrations of plants and trees and rivers and anything else you might find on a nature hike.

We can also use natural textures as backgrounds behind parts or all of our designs. Textures of wood, leather, water, grass, stones, or anything else you might find outside.

Biomimicy is the idea of emulating and taking inspiration from nature. Let’s see if we can emulate and take inspiration without being so obvious.

  • Add depth and 3-dimensionality – Nature is not 2-dimensional
  • Use rough lines instead of perfectly straight lines – Little in the natural world is perfectly straight
  • Choose organic shapes over geometric shapes – geometric shapes are man-made, organic shapes are natural
  • Use naturally inspired color schemes – analogous color schemes are often found in nature. Choose earth tones or shades of blue to mimic sky and water.
  • Use golden sections and other grids based on nature
  • Add variety to your designs – Nature is rife with variety
  • Make use of fractals – Fractals are complex shapes defined mathematically and are often found in nature

These are just a few ideas to take inspiration from nature and include them in our designs. Keep in mind that small details can go a long way and many times can be more interesting than showing an ordinary scene of nature.

River in Colorado

What Aspects of Nature Should You Emulate?

You hear me say it all the time. The goal of visual design is to communicate and different elements communicate different messages. It’s no different when adding elements of nature to your design.

A perfectly still lake conveys a different meaning than a fast flowing river filled with rapids. The lake is static, calm, stable, peaceful. The river is dynamic, flowing, full of movement and tension. Viewing a desert scene will leave you with a different feeling than viewing a rainforest scene.

Choose the right natural imagery for your design. Seek to add nature in a way that aids communication instead of sending mixed messages. Fire, earth, water, and wind all communicate different things. Choose which communicates your message best.

Spend time observing nature in detail and ask yourself how different aspects of nature make you feel. Observe how nature makes others feel. Seek the details instead of only looking at the overall scene. What messages do nature’s details convey? How much of nature do you fail to notice ordinarily? Pay attention to details. Carry a camera or sketchpad with you on nature excursions to record these details for later use.

In Building Biophilia: Connecting People to Nature in Building Design (PDF), authors Judith Heerwagon and Betty Hase say in regards to biophilia and buildings:

Biophilia directly confronts the issue of aesthetics and our evolved sense of beauty. Incorporating this natural sense of beauty into our buildings will make them not only greener in the environmental sense, but also greener in a human sense.

They suggest asking several questions in regards to buildings, which I think we can also ask ourselves about visual design.

  • Is it beautiful?
  • Does it engage the senses?
  • Are there places to rest the mind?
  • Does it use the natural geometry of nature?
  • Does it incorporate a diversity of living things and life-like processes?
  • Does it delight and amuse?

Ask yourself these questions when incorporating natural imagery and design elements into your work.

Examples of Designs Inspired by Nature

Here’s a very small sample of posts that will hopefully inspire you when it comes to adding nature to your designs. Note not only how natural imagery is added to the designs, but how it enhances the message of the design.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Summary

Human beings have a love of nature. There’s a mounting body of evidence that nature has benefits in physical, psychological, and social well being (PDF). Nature restores and relaxes and when surrounded by natural environments and imagery we concentrate better, learn more, and are generally more productive.

The biophilia effect tells us that when healing, learning, and concentration are important we should seek to incorporate nature into our designs. From large images of nature to subtle details that imply nature we can help our audience better absorb our message.

Take time to think about and observe nature and understand what different scenes and details communicate. Think about how they make you and others feel and think about how you can incorporate those scenes and details in your work.

Adding natural imagery may not always be appropriate, but when it is, details of nature can increase communication and offer a variety of benefits to your visitors.

Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.
—William Wordsworth

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

6 comments

  1. Van, thanks for high quality ideas.
    We manufacture business cards in Estonia and your blog will be usefull for us especially for our designers.
    Carry on this good work!

  2. Interesting post. I’ve been aware of this idea of course, but not in a very conscious way until reading your thoughts here. As someone brought up in a rural environment and now living in an urban one, I can attest to the difference in how each affects concentration and focus. The only thing I disagree with is the idea that artificial plants could be as beneficial as real ones. Maybe it’s a personal or cultural thing, but fake plants bother me and heighten the artificialness of interiors. 2D illustrations of plant life on the other hand are acceptable and pleasurable to me oddly enough though.

    • Thanks Ethan. I guess I’m the opposite of you. I grew up in a more urban setting, though I’ve since moved to places more rural.

      Intuitively I’m with you on the artificial plant thing. Research though, seems to indicate that artificial works just as well. I don’t care much for artificial plants myself, but I guess the comparison might be an office building. Picture one without any plantlife at all and one with artificial plants all about.

      Even though the plants aren’t real and maybe we’ll add some 2D imagery, it seems that people do find it easier to concentrate and focus than they do in their absence.

      Like you, though I’d rather see real nature than an artificial impression of nature.

    • I’m glad you liked the post Ksenia. The buildings are great aren’t they. I’ve always been a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright and some of the buildings I linked to would be a joy to live or work in.

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