Over the past few years we’ve seen a definitive shift within retail, leisure and even healthcare towards experience, and for good reason. Innovative and intelligent environment design is inherently emotional and has the power to positively impact our sense of belonging and wellbeing. It’s a fresh direction, that could well be used as a blueprint to help tackle the wellbeing crisis currently occurring across universities.

Adidas, for example, are experts at creating an experience within their retail spaces that is both emotional and multi-sensorial. Their newest addition is their recently opened flagship store on Oxford Street which is their “most digital store ever” according to Essential Retail. It features interactive changing rooms, flooring that can be changed at “the click of a button”, a MakerLab for custom designs and The Base, a dedicated section of the store where customers can take part in “product experiences and interactive challenges”. Customers aren’t simply there to shop, they’re there to experience the heart of the Adidas brand.

As well as allowing individuals to experience their values and driving ethos, the most successful brands create a sense of belonging too, a feeling that allows someone to think ‘this is my brand’, to feel mutually accepted. The All Blacks embrace this wholeheartedly, expressing it beautifully in their ‘Belong’ campaign. “I belong to Team All Blacks/A team of millions”, a broad selection of fans (or, indeed, teammates) say to camera.

“You belong, I belong, we belong to Team All Blacks forever”, the teammates conclude. The campaign isn’t a standalone piece but a supporting tenet of their brand a as whole, one based around team spirit, acceptance, heritage and, ultimately, feeling; an approach that arguably makes them the most famous brand in the world of rugby. The brand sentiment extends right down to the team talks too, explains mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka. “When you walk to the pitch, you should feel you belong to this place and that it’s fed and nourished by the people,” he says.

Whether in sports or in education, belonging is vital. According to Laura Roberts, chairman and professor of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, “A sense of belonging is deeply important to emotional health and personal wellbeing… [it] promotes mental and physical health and helps individuals to flourish in all aspects of their lives.”

While belonging may seem an intangible notion, it can be promoted through good design, in turn boosting wellbeing. The study of the relationship between environment and the individual began 60 years ago, spearheaded by psychologists Lewin and Murray. In his seminal study, Lewin studied the problems associated with the individual’s motivation and motivation within the group in a particular situation. He posited that a person’s behaviour is dictated by their “life space”, a combination of all influences on a person at any given time. Based on his research, Lewin created a “field theory rule” expressed as the following formula: B = f (P, E). This means that behaviour (B) is a function of the person (P) and their environment (E).

The upshot of this formula is that behaviour is informed by environment, and therefore the design of an environment can shape behaviour. It can shift how we respond physically or, indeed, emotionally to a space and therefore how – and what – we feel. And we’re seeing the proof of that all around us.

Qatar Airlines, for instance, introduced a jetlag-reducing aircraft complete with 16 million anti-jetlag LED lights. According to Aerotime Hub the lights make, “the cabin of aircraft lighter and create an impression of more natural light. [They] can even imitate a sunrise and a sunset”, allowing travellers’ consciousness to adapt more easily to time changes.

In a similar vein, Qantas collaborated with the University of Sydney’s School of Physics to create a “body clock intervention lounge that helps to reduce the effects of jet lag”. Light therapy, hydration stations and bespoke stretching classes are designed to help kick-start the adjustment of traveller’s body clocks and promote wellbeing. It negates the idea that the airport is simply an uncomfortable place to deal with, rather it’s a place in which travellers can unwind and feel they belong.

Each of the airline projects is visually sleek but it’s not just about the finishes and furniture. By subtly nudging their passengers to take time to relax and hydrate, by using lighting to help them feel awake and refreshed, and by providing the opportunity and space to stretch, they’re building wellbeing into their environments.

Maggie’s Centres, hubs that provide emotional, practical and social support for those affected by cancer, also blend form with emotional function. Built on the grounds of NHS cancer hospitals, they’re designed as the antithesis of sterile, clinical hospital environments. In their Oldham location, the images of which are well worth exploring, natural materials were utilised by dRMM architects to create a sense of escape. Raised on stilts and oriented away from the hospital, the views of the rolling hills in the distance do the same. A central lightwell is home to a tree which evokes the playful feel of being above the world in a treehouse, while curved, meandering hallways allow for a sense of freedom. The choices of materials have practical functions too; oak door handles replace traditional steel, for example, as people undergoing chemotherapy can experience pain when touching cold objects. Whether walking the corridors or daydreaming by the windows, every visitor can feel free, comforted and supported.

A visitor to a Maggie’s Centre isn’t just there for a therapy session, for instance, they’re there for the escape. Equally, for Qantas, it’s not merely about getting their passenger from A to B, it’s allowing them to do it calmly with time to decompress and readjust.

Shifting focus to universities, the environment itself and the desired emotions and outcomes wanted from students may be different, but the way in which they as human beings respond to environments is the same. Student’s experiences are still defined by feelings, not just function. Just as those who visit an Adidas store or attend an All Blacks match experience the very core of the brand, which in turn engenders a sense of belonging, so too should students as they walk an institutions’ corridors, sit in its lecture theatres or enjoy its social spaces.

Designing from the inside out, with emotional responses firmly at the forefront, has been transformative for the brands and spaces discussed. By looking closely at the examples already set, universities, too, could genuinely build the emotions they seek to elicit into their environments, positioning the campus itself as a foundation for wellbeing.

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