Creating a 'Sense of Place' in a Blank Space
We’ve all experienced that moment when we step into a new space — whether it’s a restaurant, stadium, hotel, museum or retail store — when you immediately understand and connect with the environment. In that instant, you feel the room and its energy. In some cases, you can immediately decide if you like it or if it conflicts with your own internal perceptions and beliefs. For some, an environment can be welcoming, while for others that same space can be uncomfortable, setting them on edge. Some environments generate excitement, such as a stadium or sports arenas, while others instill reflection and quiet interaction, such as a library or museum gallery. In an instant, you form that first impression where you decide whether to venture further into the space or turn around and head right back out the door.
We are all aware of the influence an environment plays on the experiences we have. We know a designed environment plays a significant role in the quality of the experience and the memories we take with us when we leave. Places with an appealing sense of place typically have a style all their own that reflects their history, economy and attitude. Careful planning has helped preserve, highlight and augment important features and qualities. This is not something that happens naturally or overnight; each and every design choice was purposefully selected to convey the specific mood and mission of that business or brand.
The Science of Spaces
In the book “The Meaning of the Built Environment: A Nonverbal Communication Approach,” Amos Rapoport discusses how places — in addition to having physical features — include messages and meanings people perceive and decode based on their roles, personal experiences, expectations and motivations. So when you’re talking about a “sense of place” it really is referring to an experience an individual person has in a specific setting.
This is an important consideration when creating new spaces, and this is where science and psychology play a role in design. Let’s break this down so we can better understand what this means for designers and their PSP partners.
Phenomenologists use concepts such as “Topophilia,” “character of place” and “spirit of place” to explain the concept of sense of place. Topophilia, which means “love of place,” was used for the first time in 1975 by Yi-Fu Tuan in an academic article “Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values” to describe the bonds between people and physical settings.
In 1976, as a revision to his 1973 University of Toronto doctoral dissertation in Geography, Edward Relph elaborated on how the “spirit of place” relates to the unique aspects of a place. He explained that a sense of place can be created and developed through connections between users and places. This sense of place is influenced by personal and collective values, beliefs and behaviors. Additionally, the more willing a person is to contribute to social activities in a place, the stronger the bond is between that person and the location.
By the 1990s, environmental psychology appeared as a research area. Building on the work done in the 1970s, environmental psychologists asserted that physical settings can have a very real, immediate and long-term impact on human behavior and their mental and physical health. According to environmental psychologists Daniel Stokols and Sally Ann Shumaker, architects and designers need to consider both the emotional and functional qualities of places. In this regard, they feel the purpose of designing places should not only be to facilitate everyday activities but also provide “symbolic and affective qualities” which are very important to have in order to attract more people to places. The overall quality of environments is measured in two ways: the richness of their psychological and socio-cultural meanings and how they relate to a person’s physical comfort, safety and performance criteria.
In this instance the “experience of a place” is one of the most important factors in sense of place. Fritz Steel, in his book “The Sense of Place,” defines sense of place as a particular experience a person has in a specific setting. The experience is felt through all the senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) and through that experience, a relationship is formed between the person and place.
In 1998, in the book “Good City Form,” Kevin Lynch reasoned that a place must be recognizable and should have an identity to create the sense of place that eventually leads to place attachment. In this instance, sense of place needs to have three elements in order for that attachment to take place: location, landscape and personal involvement. To create a sense of place, all three components should interact together. He also noted the sameness of our buildings and the digital age can diminish that sense of place, which makes it all the more important now, 20 years deeper into the digital age.
Putting Sense of Place into Practice
Sometimes we think an environmental graphic on the wall or even a simple one-color graphic on a window doesn’t make a big difference in a space. But when you look at some of the research as to how people interact and make connections with places it certainly can change our opinion on the matter.
Although long-term familiarity can influence how a person makes the connection with a place, the physical attributes of a space — the size of the setting, the scale, the proportion, the diversity, the distance, the various textures, ornaments, colors, smells, sounds, temperature and visual variety — all help create that place identity and reinforce the sense of place.
While most of us are not phenomenologists or environmental psychologists, understanding the background of how people connect with places can be critical when working with a brand. Working together, interior designers, with the help of their print partners, can create spaces that really speak to a brand’s target audience through all of those physical attributes including colors and visual variety. This approach can help to foster meaningful experiences for consumers at various places that value the quality and breadth of experiences beyond the simple exchange of goods and services. Visitors gain a sense of place and community and identify with the environment as their own. They, in turn, feel impelled to share memories with others and encourage them to visit as well. With mindful and deliberate choices, these designed spaces can build a connection with people, encourage visitors to stay longer, enjoy the journey and give them a real reason to return time and time again.
Denise Gustavson is the Editorial Director and Special Projects Editor for the Printing & Packaging Group, which includes Printing Impressions, packagePRINTING, In-plant Graphics and Wide-Format Impressions magazines, among other brands. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Wide-Format Impressions.