Airports: Spaces that NEED Science

Airports: Spaces that NEED Science

The airports on our planet need environmental psychology.  A lot. They’re packed with people who are stressed, for any number of reasons—some are concerned about making connections, for example, and others are nervous about flying, even if their flights are on schedule. Environmental design can make the lives of people in airports less stressful, and even more pleasant. The next paragraphs will look at examples in environmental psychology research that can be applied to designing airports.

These insights gathered from environmental psychology research show how airports can be designed as more pleasant places for employees and travelers to spend time.

1. Feeling safe and in control

Some seats in every waiting area should supply users with what’s known in the environmental psych biz as prospect and refuge (Heerwagen and Gregory, 2008). That means that the people sitting in them feel protected and have a view out over the nearby area, the way someone at the mouth of a cave on a hillside would.  Clearly, not all seats can be arranged so that people sitting in them find a wall (full height or shorter) or a plant or the tall back of a chair, or something similar, behind themselves. But when that can happen, the people seated are more likely to feel comfortable.  It’s alien and unpleasant for humans to sit with unprotected backs in the midst of a sea of people traveling to ticket counters, departure gates, and overpriced hot dogs.

Also, feeling that we have a reasonable amount of control over our environment is necessary for our psychological wellbeing, and it’s particularly important as at-airport waits continue (Leotti, Iyengar, and Ochsne, 2010). A reasonable level of control (Iyengar and Lepper, 2000) means that we can do things such as select from a variety of seats in assorted configurations, decide what sort of over-priced airport snacks we prefer, and choose where to recharge our stash of electronic devices, for example. Too many choices can be overpowering, so it’s best if those planning airports pare options down to the ones people are most likely to need/use—fifteen seating configurations are too many, six probably meet most travelers’ needs.

2. Multiple options for using the same space

A range of space-use options also makes it more likely that people from different national cultures and with varying personalities feel comfortable in a space (Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov, 2010; Cain, 2012). For example, people from some cultures prefer to sit physically closer to each other and members of other cultures are more likely to be “at-a-distance-talkers”  (Gifford, 2014).  When an assortment of options is provided—if, for example, in a waiting area there are some seats that are relatively close to each other or that don’t have armrests between seatmates and other chairs that are farther apart or that have armrests—people from various cultures with different personalities can spend time together without amping up each others’ stress levels. Moveable seats, ones that are not bolted the floor, also allow culture- and personality-consistent configurations.  Seating options provided also must reflect the reality that humans come in a variety of heights and weights.

Images from Arlanda airport in Stockholm – this aiport design example consists of a waiting area featuring lots of wood and pivoting, curved chairs.

3. Designing an airport that pleases the senses

Warm colored light is a good choice for airport, waiting areas, restaurants, etc., because it helps us relax and to get along with others (Wessolowski, Koenig, Schulte-Markwort, and Barkmann, 2014). Cool colored light can be good in some airport spaces, such as ticket counters, however, because it has been linked to enhanced concentration  (Weitbrecht, Barwolff, Lischke, and Junger, 2015).

Airport interiors are packed with travelers and airline/airport employees under pressure, so using stress-busting surface colors and finishes is a good idea. These colors are not very saturated but relatively bright (Valdez and Mehrabian, 1994); sage greens or dusty blues with lots of white mixed into them can help stress levels in check.  Time seems to pass more slowly in warm-colored spaces than cooler-colored ones (Baker and Cameron, 1996), so cool colors are better options for airport interiors.  Research by Fell indicates that seeing wood grain also helps us de-stress (Fell, 2010).  Using it in floors and other surfaces is a good bet, as long as it’s been harvested as a renewable resource and covers less than 45% of the available surface areas (Masuda and Yamamoto, 1988; Tsunetsugu, Miyazaki, and Sato, 2007).

Curves in at-airport forms and patterns are desirable because we find curved elements more calming and beautiful to view than more rectilinear ones (Dazkir and Reed, 2012; Vartanian, Navarrete, Chatterjee, Fich, Leder, Modrono, Nadal, Rostrup, and Skov, 2013). The point here relates to relative numbers of curve-y and straight lines in carpeting, upholstery, seat forms, etc.  A space that’s entirely curvilinear seems to be lifted from a kids’ cartoon, and one that’s entirely rectilinear brings horror movies, or falling into a machine, to mind.

Scents can be used strategically in airports. There is less littering, for example, in spaces that smell like cleaning products, for example (de Lange, Debets, Ruitenburg, and Holland, 2012).

 Airports generally have windows that overlook the runways, and that’s a good thing. Natural light has been shown to boost our moods and enhance our cognitive performance, which can be handy when we’re working with a gate agent to rebook a flight (Boyce, Genter, and Howlette, 2003).

The views of nature that come through those windows may or may not provide the sorts of restorative views that de-stress us, ones with grasses and other vegetation, for example (Kaplan, 1995). When outdoor plants aren’t available to combat traveler tension, indoor ones can help keep stress levels in check (Lohr, Pearson-Mims, and Goodwin, 1996).  Green and leafy plants are best and a select group will suffice if they’re positioned so that a few are visible at any one time to anyone looking through the space (Larsen, Adams, Beal, Kweon, and Tyler, 1998).

 4. Ease of navigating and movement

 Wayfinding signage that tells us what we need to know, via words/images/graphics we understand, leads to more positive traveling experiences (Mollerup, 2013). Sign design has been extensively studied by cognitive scientists, and they’ve learned a lot about how signs should communicate.  For example, adding people to signs, and showing them in motion/active, makes content easier to understand (Cian, Krishna, and Elder, 2015).

 Gently curving hallways are a good idea in airports, they encourage us to keep walking (Joye, 2007).

People waiting need information; if they don’t get it their moods degrade with eacpassing, uniformed tick of the clock (Ledbetter, Mohamed-Ameen, Oglesby, and Boyce, 2013). Ideally information boards are distributed throughout a waiting area so that people can read flight related updates without either momentarily abandoning their possessions and racing to an information board or packing up all their possessions and toddling off in search of the info they require.

Julie Baker and Michaelle Cameron. 1996.  “The Effects of the Service Environment on Affect and Consumer Perception of Waiting Time:  An Integrative Review and Research Propositions.”  Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 338-349.

Boyce, C. Hunter, and O. Howlette.  2003.  “The Benefits of Daylight Through Windows.”  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute:  Troy, New York.

Susan Cain. 2012. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Crown Publishers: New York.

Luca Cian, Aradhna Krishna, and Ryan Elder.  2015.  “A Sign of Things to Come:  Behavioral Change Through Dynamic Iconography.”  Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 41, no. 4.

Sibel Dazkir and Marilyn Read.  2012.  “Furniture Forms and Their Influence on Our Emotional Responses Toward Interior Environments.” Environment and Behavior, vol. 44, no. 5, pp. 722-732.

de Lange, L.  Debets, K. Ruitenburg and R.  Holland. 2012.  “Making Less of a Mess: Scent Exposure as a Tool for Behavioral Change.” Social Influence, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 90-97.

David Fell.  2010.  “Wood in the Human Environment:  Restorative Properties of Wood in the Built Indoor Environment.”  Dissertation, The University of British Columbia.

Robert Gifford.  2014.  Environmental Psychology, Fifth Edition.  Optimal Books:  Colville, WA.

Judith Heerwagen and Bert Gregory. 2008. “Biophilia and Sensory Aesthetics.” In Stephen Kellert, Judith Heerwagen, and Martin Mador (editors).  Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. Wiley:  New York, pp. 227-241.

Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov.  2010.  Cultures and Organizations.  McGraw Hill:  New York.

Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper. 2000. “When Choice Is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. vol. 79, no. 6, pp. 995–1006.

Yannick Joye. 2007. “Architectural Lessons From Environmental Psychology: The Case of Biophilic Architecture.” Review of General Psychology, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 305-328.

Kaplan.  1995.  “The Restorative Benefits of Nature:  Towards an Integrative Framework.”  Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 15, pp. 169-182.

Larissa Larsen, Jeffrey Adams, Brian Deal, Byoung-Suk Kweon and Elizabeth Tyler. 1998. “Plants in the Workplace: The Effects of Plant Density on Productivity, Attitudes, and Perceptions.” Environment and Behaviorvol. 30, no. 3, pp. 261-281.

Jonathan Ledbetter, Amira Mohamed-Ameen, James Oglesby, and Michael Boyce.  2013.  “Your Wait Time From This Point Will Be . . . : Practices for Designing Amusement Park Queues.”  Ergonomics in Design:  The Quarterly of Human Factors Applications, vol. 21, pp. 22-28.

Lauren Leotti and Mauricio Delgado. 2011.  “The Inherent Reward of Choice.”  Psychological Science, vol. 22, no. 10, pp. 1310-1318.

Lohr, C. Pearson-Mims, and G. Goodwin.  1996.  “Interior Plants May Improve Worker Productivity and Reduce Stress in a Windowless Environment.”  Journal of Environmental Horticulture, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 97-100.

Masuda and N. Yamamoto.  1988.  “The Wood Ratio in Interior Space and the Psychological Images.”  Bulletin of the Kyoto Universities Forests, vol. 60.

Per Mollerup.  2013. Wayshowing Wayfinding:  Basic and Interactive.  BIS Publishers:  Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

  1. Tsunetsugu, Y. Miyazaki, and H. Sato.  2007.  “Physiological Effects in Humans Induced by the Visual Stimulation of Room Interiors with Different Wood Quantities.”  Journal of Wood Science—The Japan Wood Research Society, vol. 53, pp. 11-16.

Patricia Valdez and Albert Mehrabian. 1994. Effects of color on emotions.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol. 123, no. 4, pp. 394–409.

Oshin Vartanian, Gorka Navarrete, Anjan Chatterjee, Lars Fich, Helmut Leder, Cristian Modrono, Marcos Nadal, Nicolai Rostrup, and Martin Skov.  2013.  “Impact of Contour on Aesthetic Judgments and Approach-Avoidance Decisions in Architecture.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 110, supplement 2, pp. 10446-10453.

  1. Weitbrecht, H. Barwolff, A. Lischke, and S. Junger.  2015.  “Effect of Light Color Temperature on Human Concentration and Creativity.”  Fortschritte der Neurologie, Psychiatrie, vol. 83, no. 6, pp. 344-348.

Nino Wessolowski, Heiko Koenig, Michael Schulte-Markwort, and Claus Barkmann.  2014. “The Effect of Variable Light on the Fidgetiness and Social Behavior of Pupils in School.”  Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 39, pp. 101-108.

Sally Augustin

Sally Augustin

Publisher of Research Design Connections

Sally Augustin, PhD, is a practicing environmental psychologist, an internationally recognized expert on person-centered design, and publisher and editor of Research Design Connections.  She has extensive experience using rigorous protocols to integrate insights from environmental/design psychology, other social/physical sciences, and project specific research to develop places, objects, and services that support desired experiences.

As the editor of Research Design Connections, she has written widely on science-based design for a broad audience of design professionals and those interested in the designed world. Her Research Design Connections blog is read by thousands of individuals each month.

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Maggie’s Centre: Vision and Reality.

Maggie’s Centre: Vision and Reality.

Maggie Keswick Jencks: an author and landscape architect, she was surrounded by other designers, architects and academics. She met her husband, Charles Alexander Jencks, an architect, lecturer and theorist while studying at Architecture Association in London.  Maggie and Charles travelled exhaustively, assessing buildings, meeting architects and academics, and giving lectures and attending conferences. Her extensive design knowledge and experience made her excellent architecture critic.

Diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 47, she experienced the spaces as a patient. She had a mastectomy and was cancer-free for five years; it returned as advanced metastatic breast cancer, hurling her into the maelstrom. Maggie and her family heard of a trial at Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, and they decided to fight. This place is where Maggie, as a patient and a designer, had insights about the psycho-social needs of the patients. She was disappointed with the conventional hospital which failed to support the psycho-social needs of the patients. This experience inspired her to create an additional facility for cancer hospitals that had a different kind of space and function compared to the conventional hospital.

In these “Maggie’s Centre” series’ I will outline essential elements of these centres and critically discuss the strengths and weaknesses of them by applying environmental psychology theories and frameworks.  

Western General Hospital, Edinburgh, UK
Maggie Centre by Park Page architects, Highlands, UK

It is well known that the facade of a building makes the first impression. Western General Hospital failed to make a good first impression for Maggie; she says that it made her anxious. Maggie’s impression of late Victorian and Edwardian style building highlights the importance of Kopec (2006)’s suggestion to use human-scale elements in healthcare buildings and avoid massive buildings with uninterrupted facades. The importance of scale and massing is evident from the fact the AEDET Evolution checklist (Achieving Excellence Design Evaluation Toolkit) used by UK National Health services (NHS) discusses the building massing and scale as an essential factor of a fair healthcare environment.

Although Maggie and Charles encouraged architects to create building such that their exteriors are aesthetically stimulating and sensitive to surroundings, it is entirely possible that comforting and reassuring facade was achieved through human-scale elements. Since Maggie centres were designed as an additional facility to the hospitals, they resemble outposts, in Kopec’s words (2006), – ‘a small-family house like buildings’. The eccentric exteriors may not significantly contribute to the warm, welcoming quality of Maggie Centre when compared to the scale of the building.

Anyone who has been to a hospital would know that the time passes slowest in the waiting room. Maggie had a distaste for clinical appearance of the waiting areas; she believed that have a cause psychological distress and wrote: “patients like herself were left to wilt under the desiccating glare of fluorescent lights.” Kopec (2006)  explains this experience in his book. He bases his argument on Barker’s Behavior setting theory (1968) which states that a physical or psychological environment elicits or supports certain types of behaviour. Kopec argues that the typical appearance of the hospital environment elicits one’s role as patient. In this case, the resulting behaviours are what Parsons (1951) called “sick role”,  includes passivity in health care decision, the surrendering of one’s belief to a person of power, and behaviours related to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness, or feeling helpless in the face of a negative situation, cause depression and stress.

Because of her dissatisfaction with the institutional nature of the spaces in hospitals, she envisioned the ideal waiting area to be a well-lit pleasant room with a view out to nature, and chairs and sofas arranged in various groupings to create an opportunity for the patients to interact and relax. She wanted to provide facilities for patients where they could make their cup of coffee or tea. The kitchen often takes centre stage in the Maggie centres. She described facilities provided by Maggie centre as ‘away from home care’, and her concepts aim at creating a home-like environment, which is consistent with guidelines set by organisations such as the World Health Organization (2007) and Planetree (2009).

She despised the partitioned toilet, and her vision included an ‘old-fashioned ladies room’ – a room with hand basin and mirror, a proper door with the door frame so that the visitor can cry privately and compose oneself before getting back to the public space. Maggie was not the only one, a survey conducted by Stern and her colleagues (2003) found privacy to be one of the crucial features of the hospital care environment. Nevertheless, Altman (1975) explains that people prefer different means of achieving privacy. So,  it is essential to provide more than one way of achieving privacy.

Waiting area at Watford General Hospital.  
They waited in an awful interior space with neon lighting and then the nurse told them to come in.  

They asked: “How long have we got?”  

To which the doctor said: “Do you really want to know?”

“Yes, we really want to know.”  

“Two to three months.”


And then the nurse explained. “I’m very sorry, dear, but we’ll have to move you out into the corridor, we have so many people waiting.”

They sat in a “windowless corridor trying to deal with this business, having two to three months to live. And as They sat there, various nurses who I knew came up to them and said, very cheerfully, ‘Hello dear, how are you?’ ‘Well,’ managing a laugh, Maggie said ‘I’m fine!'” 

Maggie Centre by Cullinan Studio, Newcastle, UK.
Maggie Centre by Cullinan Studio, Newcastle, UK.
Maggie Centre by MPJ Architects, Cheltenham, UK.
Maggie Centre by Zaha Hadid, Fife, UK.

Finally, she expressed concerns about doctors being dismissive of complementary treatments such as diets and exercise. She believed that her diet helped her even though she was aware of changing one’s diet was not considered to be cancer preventive and lacked evidence as treatment. She wished to help others find the complementary treatment that worked for them. So, Maggie centre was created as a warm and welcoming place with a library, an office and a gathering space that would offer information, psychological support, advice on nutrition, exercise and relaxation therapies, thereby helping each visitor to find their way of coping with the disease. It is entirely possible that the complementary treatments do not make a significant contribution to physiological health. However, these programs could restore the sense of control by involving patients in their healthcare planning and mitigate the effects of learned helplessness such as stress and depression. It is essential that designers and stakeholders consider these practices as means of improving the mental health.

The project ‘Maggie centre’ has interesting concepts inspired by personal experiences. Considering that today there are seventeen centres, arguably the project is remarkably successful. Few attempts have explored these centres in greater detail from a psychological perspective. Understanding the psychological process behind these concepts can increase the design quality and impact of these buildings. The Maggie’s Centre Series will look at different centres and highlight some fundamental design issues that are effective as well as those that could be improved.


Barker, R. G. (1968). Ecological psychology: Concepts and methods for studying the environment of human behavior. Stanford University Press.

Department of Health Estates and Facilities (2008), Achieving Excellence Design Evaluation Toolkit Workbook. UK Department of health.

Jencks, M. K. (1995). a view from the front line. Maggies Caring Cancer Centre.

Kopec, D. A. (2006). Health Care Environments. In Environmental psychology for design. (pp. 257-276) New York: Fairchild.

Parsons, T. (1951). Illness and the role of the physician: A sociological perspective. American Journal of orthopsychiatry21(3), 452-460

Planetree (2009). About Plane Tree. Retrieved from

Stern, A.L., MacRae, S., Gerteis, M., Harrison, T., Fowler, E., Edgman-Levitan, S., & Ruga, W. (2003). Understanding the consumer perspective to improve design quality. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 16-28.

World Health Organization. (2007). Harmonizing mind and body, people and systems: People at the centre of health care. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO Press.

Sushil K Premkumar

Sushil K Premkumar

Architect and Environmental psychologist

Passionate about research and designing. Interested in studying the impact of physical environment on social and individual well-being.   @Chennai, India.

Maggie’s Centre: Vision and Reality.

Maggie Keswick Jencks’s battle with her cancer inspired her to create the Maggie Centre. But how far does the personal experience helps one in creating a building that will be used by many?