Japan is a country comprised of 146,000 square miles (or 378,000 square kilometers) of land, just 4% of the total land area of the United States of America (USA). Despite having limited land, Japan houses a population of more than 127 million, a figure slightly over 40% of the population in USA.

In the last few decades since post-war Japan, the Japanese have proven the value of making the most out of their land. Mistakes become costlier as there is very little spared to waste. On this land, perfection is the end pursuit and quality became synonymous with the words, “Made in Japan”.

When major city-centers around the world become epicenters of concentrated economic activity and continue to attract immigrants in droves, centralized real estate becomes a premium. The ability to fully maximize the productivity of every inch of working and living space seems like a sound approach to moving forward.

Yet, as cities grow and become increasingly populated, the opportunity to address this challenge by transforming our living and working spaces should not come at the cost of human liveability or workplace productivity.

In land scarce Japan, each dining-in patron only has 50cm-wide seating space at a McDonald’s restaurant in Tokyo, Japan’s capital city. | Source: Flickr, cabon33

In land scarce Japan, each dining-in patron only has 50cm-wide seating space at a McDonald’s restaurant in Tokyo, Japan’s capital city. | Source: Flickr, cabon33

“Space is the ‘body language’ of an organization,” says Chris Flink, a partner at global design consultancy, IDEO, and associate professor at Stanford University. The quote appears in the book, Make Space, by Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, with the following sub-header:

“Intentional or not, the form, functionality, and finish of a space reflect the culture, behaviors, and priorities of the people within it. This suggests that a space designer is simultaneously a cultural translator and a builder. That said, space design has its own grammar that can be tweaked to bolster desirable habits.”

Part of an international chain of co-working spaces, Hub Singapore offers 2 floors of communal work spaces in an inspiring setting. | Source: Flickr, coolinsights

Part of an international chain of co-working spaces, Hub Singapore offers 2 floors of communal work spaces in an inspiring setting. | Source: Flickr, coolinsights

Part of the reason why co-working spaces (a form of communal workspace) are gaining popularity in major cities around the world is because they are designed to challenge the conventional notions of an office work space. Barriers and cubicles are broken down in favor of more open spaces. Rooms are placed with modular furniture instead of fixed furniture. Walls are filled with chalk, marker or graffiti drawings in place of “inspirational” posters.

This bold re-imagination of the work space is rooted in deep insights from human behavior. The very same insights that drive us to pay a premium at restaurants (not merely just for food, but for the ambience) sums up part of our experience.

We’re born to move and not sit for hours

“A reflective sitting posture, while comfortable, often disguises and diminishes the potential of body language and movement. It’s static. We’ve noticed that the more comfortable people are in their seats, the less comfortable they seem to be with generating ideas, exchanging leadership roles, or moving on to the next activity. As a result, reflective posture is great for critique and reflection, but bad for generating ideas. For the same reasons, however, it works well for team debriefs and deep discussions.”

Continuing to quote Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, both directors of the Environments Collaborative at and members of the teaching faculty, ”An active, standing posture encourages people to jump in and alter the dynamics of a room. This posture also leaves room for fidgeting and stretching to release tension. Like it or not, our body language communicates intent & emotion, and we negotiate comfort level and status relationships through our proximity to each other.”

Interesting things can happen when we apply what we observe in highly active primates to human work spaces. When a team of four is made to sit at a table for two, people are drawn closer to each other and are more likely to stand. The same bias applies towards tall tables and stools; it lowers the friction from a seated to a standing position and thus causes the dynamics of the group to shift more fluidly.

Make room for interaction and reflection

As introverts and extroverts both have different thresholds for interaction and reflection, space designers should accommodate both personalities. In a typical office, the pantry, water-cooler and copier areas are all hotspots for congregation (and gossip) with co-workers. Many of these areas serve as conducive points for “impromptu conferences” or “extended small talks with protracted good-byes”, a term coined by William H. Whyte, an American urbanist who studied the role of public spaces effecting people in New York City.

Pixar's Main Lobby in Emeryville, California. | Source: Flickr, blakespot

Pixar’s Main Lobby in Emeryville, California. | Source: Flickr, blakespot

“Impromptu conferences” are a common phenomenon whenever people disperse after an event conference for a break and congregate again near flows of traffic. Steve Jobs, the founder of Pixar, made a deliberate design decision to include room for chanced interactions in its Emeryville headquarters in California. “If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see,” said Jobs in his biography. Pixar is one of the most admired animation studios in the world with award winning films like Finding Nemo and Toy Story.

Human beings might be gregarious creatures in nature but temporary solitude and a change of scene allows the brain to relax, decompress, and reboot, sometimes resulting to “Aha” and “Eureka” moments. This is a common occurrence that has found support from brain research. John Lehrer wrote in an article published by The New Yorker, “Once the brain is sufficiently focused on the problem, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight.”

By providing a temporary escape through enclosed outfitted spaces — with pillows, soundproof walls, dim lighting, etc. — that give people the permission not to work, we’re increasing problem solving and creative thinking occurrences through space design. However, if your office space lacks such an area, people would still head elsewhere to find their own hiding place, their own cave.

CreativeMornings / Singapore

CreativeMornings / Singapore, a monthly event for creative types, often hold their events at various co-working spaces. The end of every event marks a period for “impromptu conferences”. This particular space (known as The Co) has set up grey acoustic panels to minimize ambient sound. | Source: @daylonsoh

Engaging the senses with space design

For the longest time, libraries were thought to be the most conducive spaces for focused work and study. This is true if your work entails a close examination on details. A study by researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Virginia suggests that moderate ambient noise — approximately 70 decibels, found in most cafes — can boost problem solving ability and creativity.

Ravi Mehta, an assistant professor of business administration at the university who led the research, mentioned that silence tends to sharpen your focus, which can prevent you from thinking out of the box. If you’re looking to recreate ambient noise at the comfort of your desk, a website called Coffetivity will help you achieve just that. The website currently receives about 20,000 page views a day.

Sound and light are possibly the two most prominent features we remember and associate from a particular space. Natural light and bright warm colours encourage active participation within the workplace, while dimmed lights and muted colours serve to relax the mind and cause linger. Walk into any restaurant and you can guess from the music playing, the colour of its walls, and the interior lighting just how long you might stay and linger.

Other less noticeable features of a space include its smell and touch. Have you ever walked into a wood workshop and notice immediately how the air feels more heavy and suffocating? When was the last time you noticed an air-conditioner serviceman at your workplace?

Tech startup incubator JFDI.Asia, implemented the idea of dim lighting and potted plants for its first batch of graduates. | Source: Flickr, elfgoh

Tech startup incubator JFDI.Asia, implemented the idea of dim lighting and potted plants for its first batch of graduates. | Source: Flickr, elfgoh

The presence of plants within an indoor environment actually serves a dual purpose of improving air quality and restoring attention. In a 2009 study by the University of Washington, Peter H. Kahn and his team tested nature scenes in the workplace. One group of participants worked in an office where they sat near a glass window that overlooked a nature scene. A second group saw a similar scene from a video feed. A third group sat near an empty wall. The researchers kept measurements of the participants’ heart rates to monitor their stress levels.

People who saw the video scene said that they felt better, but their heart rates were actually no different from those who sat next to the wall. People in front of the glass window actually had healthier heart rate measurements, and were able to recover from stress more easily.

Bold is better than bland

A radical change can be intimidating for many people. The approach of effecting such changes in your workplace is to take small but bold steps. Memorable environments are often out of the ordinary and can only be perfected through continuous experimentation: implement, observe and tweak.

Though the effects of space design are somewhat limited, thoughtful design decisions can help nudge a company culture towards the right direction and help improve workplace productivity. Just remember to also take into account the use of mobile devices  in these spaces when you map your considerations. A smartphone pose the danger of distracting and detracting people from these planned experiences in your space design.

For insights on the use of space at street level, beyond the office, watch The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte on Vimeo.

Daylon Soh

Daylon Soh

Design Founder at CuriousCore
Creative Rebel, Marketer & Managing Editor of @OpenBrief. ♥ Digital Photography, Copywriting & Gaming
Daylon Soh
Daylon Soh

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