The Feel-Good Factor: Biophilia and Human Behaviour

For our thought piece collection this month, Creative Director Jon Lee discusses biophilic design, its feel-good factors and how we carefully consider this in our working approach.

I recently returned to New York and went back to Grand Central Terminal. This cavernous station is one of the top ten destinations around the world, with 67 million passengers passing through every year.

That central atrium, right in the heart of one of the world’s most urban landscapes, stops you in your tracks – in awe of its architectural beauty, its history, its connection to a huge community of people.

They don’t build them like that anymore!

The simple beauty of that vast, internal space, the natural light streaming in through the windows, the tones, the flowing shapes and forms. It captured my imagination and made me feel alive.

This feeling is our day-to-day obsession at 20.20 (although I might have pitched it too high with Grand Central!)

The Lee family @ Grand Central Station

We believe that as an agency, we have a duty to think about brands and environments in a way that will help fans, customers, colleagues and guests to feel great.

The importance of human behaviour has always been critical to us. Studying the way people react to the spaces around them gives us so many insights into creating spaces that energise, comfort and excite accordingly.

So, why’s this important? If an environment can make you feel great, it can also drain the living daylights out of you. Studies have proven that rooms without windows or natural light make people less productive and more fatigued. Intuitively, we aren’t drawn to these spaces. In fact, they make us want to leave!

Imagine the schools, the hospitals, the workplaces and the hotels that have not taken these stressors into account over the years and you will understand why health issues are on the rise. It’s been proven that with the right thinking and approach you can improve people’s behaviour, their health and their productivity. With a commercial hat on, it follows that a customer who feels more comfortable physically is likely to feel more comfortable spending, too.

Guests in restaurants and bars have higher bills in rooms with natural light. In education, learning and concentration can improve dramatically with good air circulation. In healthcare, recovery can be accelerated with access to nature. In retail, people are more likely to dwell in a space if there’s a connection to the outside world.

When you look back through history, you can see how important nature is to us. It feeds us and keeps us alive. Humanity grew up in nature from the dawn of time, and as we lose ourselves in technology, we are suffering withdrawal from our natural habitat.  

Children have an affinity with the outdoors. Freedom and play are key to their development. Look at forest school, a concept which originated in 50s Denmark and became part of the curriculum for pre-school children. Children attending forest school demonstrate stronger social skills and groupwork, high self-esteem and confidence in their own capabilities. The actual benefits are endless: one of the reasons it’s been adopted in many countries for different age groups.

Image Source:

Natural environments are essential to our mental, physical and social wellbeing. It seems obvious that we need clean air to breathe. Our bodies are made up of water, and we need healthy and fertile soils to produce lovely, nutritious foods. If you look at the sprawling urbanisation of our cities around the world, you might notice that the cities you most want to return to are the ones with nature woven into their landscapes.

From a mountain view to a dog walk in the park, a connection with the outdoors is key to our survival, slowing our minds down and making us feel better. Our buildings and environments need to reflect this through our senses, emotions and intellect.  

20.20 have a responsibility as an agency to look at human behaviours and to deliver experiences that connect people to their communities and the world around them. ­This doesn’t mean designers need to start putting windows, trees and plants everywhere (although it might help). It’s about much more than that.

There’s been a lot written over the years about Biophilic design. It’s an innovative way to think about the spaces where we live, work, play and learn. It’s not a new philosophy though. It was a term used by the American psychologist Edward O Wilson in the 1980s; but the thinking goes way back. John Ruskin was a leading draughtsman and philanthropist in the Victorian era. He would make workers stroll around the environment first and then invite them to carve into the building, taking inspiration from the natural world around them.

You only have to look at some of the incredible Frank Lloyd Wright buildings to see how architecture has taken inspiration from nature. The Johnson Wax Headquarters in Wisconsin is a stunning example that just makes you smile. The beautiful, tree-like columns create a forest eco-system with large lily pads peering down at you.

The people working there now are the grandchildren of people who worked there before. The building has a connection to their community, and that’s really powerful.

Image Source: SC Johnson

Another extraordinary example is The California Academy of Sciences by Renzo Piano, designed in 2008. It’s a thing of real beauty, and one of the few institutes in which public experience and scientific research happens in the same place. The material and orientation of the space respects natural lighting and ventilation. A clever rainwater recovery and energy production system make this a fine example of how you can enrich a space with nature.

Here at 20.20, we always think about people before we create. Tactile humanistic environments, that’s a mouthful! It’s not just nature, it’s connections to culture, history and place. The spirit of a place can ground you and inspire you. It can link you to tradition, which is hugely important.

It’s true to say that human behaviours are imbedded in 20.20’s design culture. We provide robust thinking to support the creative process and promote the wellbeing of anyone using our environments. This feel-good factor is critical.

By combining the principles of biophilic design with people-centric strategy, we have created a huge uplift in attendance and dwell for our clients’ spaces. The simple process of using sustainable, natural resources helps to build a sensory signature into the experience. Attention to detail and psychology is critical to an environment’s success. In a cinema, for example, you are in a different mental state when you enter the building than when you leave – and it’s key for us to understand every part of the behavioural journey.

When you enter a stadium, the excitement and anticipation can soon ebb away when you enter a cavernous, monolithic space with no sense of place or connection to its surroundings. By understanding behaviours, we know where we should challenge habits, or simply host them. We can design experiences that are better for people, and better for business – making people not just want to go somewhere but want to get there early, stay there longer, and more importantly, want to go again.

You can see this in action at Dial Square, the space we designed at Emirates Stadium for Arsenal Football Club. The environment plays a huge part in the atmosphere and activity here. We re-created the courtyard from the club’s origins, and brought it to life using traditional methods and sustainable materials. The large trees in this space tower above you and make a statement alongside the sensory design detailing. Dial Square is a social environment with the kind of relaxed pace you might not expect to find in a football stadium. The spirit of Dial Square connects fans to the cultural traditions of the club, while giving them options about how and where to socialise.

As I entered Dial Square for the first time with my 10 year-old son, he turned to me and said, “Daddy it’s beautiful. I want to live here.”

That will do.

Jon Lee, Creative Director

Read our Dial Square case study here

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