Why considering physical 'space' is important for business success and social wellbeing

By Carly Drake
North Central College
Posted3/20/2022 1:00 AM

The spaces around us have enormous impact on our well-being, and the role of businesses in curating those spaces is not to be underestimated.

The appearance of a physical space, such as an office or retail showroom, is not just an opportunity for branding, but for doing good. To take care of their employees and customers, business practitioners must consider the nature of their environment beyond the products and services they offer.


There are three elements to consider.

First, design elements. These elements refer to how a space looks. Here, we might pay attention to the building structure and location, furniture, signage, menus and other printed materials, and color schemes.

Second, atmospheric elements. These elements refer to how a space feels thanks to its lighting, smell, texture, and temperature.

Third, social elements. These elements refer to how a space's design and atmosphere communicates, implicitly and explicitly, who is welcome (or not). Social elements include neighborhood surrounding the business, its current clientele or staff, and accessibility.

Taking these elements as a unit, imagine a store crowded with furniture, products and people. It might be noisy -- and hot! -- so, instead of browsing and possibly buying, some people may go somewhere more peaceful.

In my research on college students' mental health, my colleagues and I found that students with anxiety and/or depression experience the college campus in particular ways that shape, and are shaped by, their daily ups and downs. Our data have helped us identify not only patterns of behavior but opportunities for colleges to improve students' well-being.

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In terms of design elements, we found that giving students plenty of options for how they live, work and play helps them feel in control of their days and, ultimately, their mental states.

In terms of atmospheric elements, students seek privacy and quiet throughout a school day to give themselves a break from the fast pace of college life. Social spaces can make college feel less lonely, but students also need spaces designed to help them recharge.

In terms of sociocultural elements, students want the opportunity to know and take ownership over a space. What is familiar, then, feels safe.

In considering the design, atmospheric and social elements of a space, there are two possible avenues to take. To assess an existing space, practitioners could conduct an inventory starting with design elements, then proceeding to atmospheric and finally to social. It may be easier to take stock of what's visible and then reach a conclusion regarding whether a space is meeting goals of welcoming a particular group of people.

To plan a new space, practitioners could take the reverse approach and start by envisioning a particular group of people they want to welcome. Then consider how those people might want to feel in the space and choose design elements that would create that effect.


Empathy is an important ingredient in either process, as a business's employees and customers are varied and, quite often, different from those in charge. To lead with empathy, practitioners can ask current employees and customers what they might need or want from a space. However, when working with vulnerable or marginalized populations, these groups shouldn't do all the work. Secondary resources, such as research from academics or nonprofits, can provide an initial knowledge base so that when practitioners approach others for input, they can show they are engaged and supportive allies.

A business' employees and customers deserve to feel comfortable in the spaces in which they live, work and play. In critically considering their spaces' design, atmospheric and social elements, practitioners can make this happen.

• Dr. Carly Drake is an Assistant Professor of Marketing in the School of Business and Entrepreneurship at North Central College. In her research, teaching and advocacy, she pushes against the status quo, envisioning a more inclusive marketplace where one's gender, body and mental health do not limit their opportunities. Visit drcarlydrake.com or @runcarly on Twitter.

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