5 Ways to Create a Productive Workspace: Designing With the Senses

By Jon Henning •  Updated: 07/23/22 •  16 min read

When talking about architecture and design, we’re always thinking of ways to activate the senses. Maybe we want to create an environment in which people can relax, or maybe one that creates a subliminal message for people to move and become energized. Architecture is all about the senses, and I think it’s equally important to consider the senses while actively designing.

A “design workspace”, or a workspace specifically tailored for architects and designers should be a place that helps maximize productivity.

So how can our workspaces help us maximize our productivity?

In architecture, sensory design is the concept of “designing spaces that appeal to the senses”. An excellent and classic book that covers this concept in-depth is called “Eyes of the Skin” by Juhani Pallasmaa.

But as designers and architects who are utilizing sensory design for our design projects, shouldn’t the spaces we’re physically working in strive to do the same? Shouldn’t our own workspaces also help stimulate our senses?

It’s easy to let our design workspaces get stale over time, and oftentimes we don’t even realize that the space we’re working in everyday could be enhanced in a few small ways to help us stay productive.

In this post, I’m going to cover 5 ways to create a productive workspace, that focuses on sensory design. I’ll talk about some of my personal experience in architecture and design, and how to create a productive workspace using sensory design: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

Sight: Creating a Visually Engaging Work Environment

“We are born of light. The seasons are felt through light. We only know the world as it is evoked by light.”

 Louis Kahn – Architect

Ever since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020, the topic of “working remotely” has been at the forefront of our industry. The idea of a “workspace” changed seemingly overnight, and many architects and designers were forced to reimagine what a designer’s workspace looked like.

From dining tables in homes, to tiny desks in the corners of small apartments, impromptu workspaces had to be created out of pure necessity. Perhaps these workspaces were not the most visually appealing… and perhaps, they still aren’t.

If you want to make some upgrades to your current workspace to help you become more focused and productive, here are some ways way to make your space more visually engaging.

Visually Improve Your Workspace

Focusing on the sense of “sight”, the important characteristic to consider here is light — and ideally, natural light. So perhaps the first question to ask yourself is:

Change Your Lighting: Artificial vs. Natural

Lighting plays a vital role in designers’ performance and mood. This article from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s online MBA program explains exposure to natural light improves mood, energy and mental health, greatly impacting focus and productivity.

I remember the lighting in my university being particularly harsh…

Our studios had this generic omnidirectional overhead lighting with a bright bluish-white hue. It certainly hit the mark for achieving a “stimulated” environment, but I found it wasn’t always comfortable for working in the evening hours or during stages where I needed to deeply concentrate.

This was one of the things that drove me to work from home more frequently as well, but in my home workspace, I had much more control over the lighting.

Currently, I use color-changing lightbulbs that I can easily adjust according to the level of focus I’m striving for.

If I’m working late at night, I’ll change the lights to a deep red color (which is the slowest wavelength on the light spectrum, and helps create a soothing atmosphere.)

Or during the day, I’ll switch to bright white to mimic daylight and help stimulate my productivity.

Additionally, having ambient lights that attach the back of my computer monitor has been hugely beneficial when I’m working on editing graphics or photographs.

5 Ways to Create a Productive Workspace, setting up a comfortable office space, lighting in studio space

The second thing you can easily do to improve your workspace is by bringing “nature” inside — in other words, add some plants to your workspace!

Add Greenery to Your Workspace

Whether in architecture school studio, or in corporate office spaces — indoor plants are certainly increasing in popularity. Quarantine certainly inspired a lot of new “plant Mom’s” and “plant Dad’s”, and for good reason!

One of the best ways to instantly enhance the visual appeal of your workspace is to add plants. Bringing nature into your workspace can help create a calming atmosphere.

5 Ways to Create a Productive Workspace, greenery in office space

Even just sitting outside for an hour or so everyday, I always feel refreshed before heading back into studio.

After all, we spent 90% of our lives indoors. Why not bring nature inside and fill our workspace with it?

Studies show that having plants in our workspaces can help increase productivity by 15%.

Having plants at our desk often help us feel more physically and emotionally involved in our work, which helps our overall well-being by lowering physiological stress.4

Sound: Using Noise to Focus

“Sound is the vocabulary of nature.”

Pierre Schaeffer

Have you ever been working in a building where at the end of the day, all of the HVAC systems turn off? Suddenly, there’s an eerie quietness that arises once the “white noise” of the mechanical systems are absent — and your perception of “silence” has now changed.

No matter where we are working, there’s almost always going to be some form of sound present, whether we’re actively aware of it or not. Among the white noise created by a building’s mechanical systems, disturbances from loud co-workers, general office noise, and sudden notifications from electronic devices can have a negative impact on your productivity.

Sound is all around us — and often, we can control it.

3 Types of Sounds to Help Increase Productivity

White noise

This includes standard white noise sometimes, but personally, I prefer to listen to more “natural” white noise sounds — like waves crashing, rain falling, the wind blowing through pine trees, etc.

Here’s a great post on how white noise affects productivity.

Instrumental Music

I personally love listening to orchestrated music when I study because I find it relaxing and often inspiring. This is my personal take, but I’ve always had more respect for music that can be acoustically produced. As somebody who writes and plays music, I’ve found that listening to acoustic, minimalistic music helps me focus, but also feeds my own music writing process while I’m designing. It’s sort of a feedback loop in a way — listening to inspiring music while I design, and thinking about design while I play music.

Video Game OSTs & Remixes

I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to video games, and there are so many overlaps with video game development and architectural design I’ve found over the years. Some of my favorite games I played growing up have found a way back into my life as I went through architecture school, and I’ve really found a new appreciation for the time and effort it takes to create a compelling story in a digital world.

Much like how architecture can help transform people into a different “world”, video games certainly attempt to do the same thing. What fascinating about a well-designed video game is not always what is seen… but what we hear when playing video games.

For many reasons, I love listening to the original soundtracks of these games:

Get a Pair of Over-ear Headphones

Depending on what part of the design process I’m working on, my preference for sound tends to change — from wanting absolute silence (for critical thinking), to enjoying the presence of people talking or cars passing by. No matter where I’m working, I’ll often put on a pair of headphones with some background noise.

Since I record music and professional audio, I use a pair of wireless over-the-ear studio headphones which are superb for hearing exactly what I want to hear, when I want to hear it. If you’re curious, these are the headphones that I’ve been using for about 2 years now — and I would highly recommend them to anybody looking to step up the audio realm of their workspace.

Touch: Getting Comfortable Isn’t Always Best

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Neale Donald Walsch

We’ve all been there — you’re trying to focus on a task but you can’t seem to get comfortable. You adjust your position a million times, but nothing seems to work. And while being comfortable is important, sometimes it’s not the key to increasing your productivity.

Change Your Position Frequently

For me, I’ve found that it’s sometimes better to work in a slightly uncomfortable position. It might mean sitting on the floor instead of in a chair, or standing up while I work. Something about being slightly uncomfortable keeps me more alert and focused on the task at hand.

5 Ways to Create a Productive Workspace, change your position frequently

Standing desks have become extremely popular since the beginning of the pandemic, and many offices have started gravitating towards using them over static desks.

Getting one for your own workspace is easier than ever — no matter the scale. Don’t have room in your small apartment for a proper standing desk? No problem! Check out these desktop options:

Maintain Good Posture While Sitting

Nonetheless, good posture is probably the most important thing to consider for the long-run. Make sure you’re not hunched over your work and take breaks often to walk around and stretch. Your back will thank you!

Sitting with good posture is important for working long-periods of time, but it’s often hard to sustain good posture once you become focused on the task at hand. Studies show that maintaining good posture is not just good for your physical health, but it also evokes confidence in your own thoughts — which is extremely important for making critical decisions in the design process.

Buy a Good Drafting Chair

Since I’ve been working primarily from home for the past 2 years, I decided to invest in a real drafting chair. I go between a small desk and a table in my apartment while working throughout the day. When I would sit at my desk, I had a decently comfortable chair to work at. But when I would work at the tall table, I would sit in these really cheap IKEA stools… which were absolutely terrible for my posture.

In 2021, I decided to purchase this Laura Davidson “SOHO” Drafting Chair — and it has been completely worth the investment.

Laura SOHO Drafting Chair

✔️ Mobility | Optional Wheels (to move easily)
✔️ Ergonomic | Removeable Arms, Adjustable Height
✔️ Design Aesthetic | Minimal, modern, contemporary
💰 Pricing | See Below

Optimize Workspace Temperature

Working in a space that is either too hot or too cold can affect your productivity. People perceive temperature different (74-degrees may feel warm to me, and cool to somebody else), but setting a baseline temperature range is good practice for a productive workspace. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) suggests that the ideal office temperature is somewhere between 68 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity in the 20%-60% range.

Taste: Connecting to Memory

“Memories are like salt: the right amount brings out the flavor in food, but too much ruins it.”

Paulo Coelho

Coffee and tea are two of the most popular drinks in the world, and there has been a ton of discussion about the health benefits associated with them. Statistics have stated that the entire world consumes over 2 billion cups of coffee per day — and tea is the second most-consumed drink in the world, after water.

So other than to get a boost of caffeine, or to help relax after a long day… what are the benefits of drinking tea or coffee?

Drinking certain types of tea can have a variety of health benefits, including benefits in cognition — specifically on attention and mood.

5 Ways to Create a Productive Workspace, taste and memory

Herbal tea is my go-to drink when I need to increase my focus. I find that the act of brewing a cup of tea helps me to take a break and clear my mind, and the caffeine in the tea helps me to focus on the task at hand.

Of course, not everyone likes herbal tea… or coffee… but there are plenty of other drinks that can help increase your focus. Just make sure you’re staying away from sugary drinks, as they will usually just give you a short burst of energy followed by a crash.

I think it’s worth reading more about how drinking certain types of tea can help benefit your productivity, so I’d recommend giving these case studies a quick read:

Case-studies on Mental Benefits of Drinking 2 Types of Tea

  1. Improve working memory: Green Tea
  2. Increase ‘Divergent Creativity’: Black Tea

But how does taste connect to memory?

Studies show that your sense of taste is closely connected to your ability to recall, or remember. Emotional memories are encoded in the brain for longer periods of time (than short term memories) — so how can we use this to our benefit when focusing on productivity?

At some point, we’re going to need to rely on our memory to convey design ideas — whether you’re attempting to explain your design process to a client, or you’re taking an exam. Designers are constantly encoding and decoding information.

Consider this: if you’re studying for an important exam or you’re working on a part of your design process that requires critical-thinking, be selective about what you eat and drink. As mentioned above, tea is a great choice to consume for productivity. Switch up the flavors you’re consuming, then consume those same flavors again when you’re expecting a need to recall those memories.

The best example I can think of is how people consume a specific flavor of something while studying for an exam — say, spearmint flavored tea or chewing gum. Right before actually taking the exam, they’ll consume that same spearmint flavor again to help stimulate their cognition.

But does it really work?

According to this study, “olfactory memory” initiated by our sense of taste triggers retrieval cues through our hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for formulating a memory of the place and time of the experience.

Regarding your workspace, you’ll simply want to be cognizant of the types of foods and beverages you have available to consume while you work.

If you’re into hot drinks and minimalism, consider adding this sleek kettle to your space.

Smell: Regulating Emotion and Stress

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.”

Hellen Keller

Closely connected to our sense of taste, we can use our sense of smell to be more productive. In fact, a pleasant scent can help us reduce stress, increase performance, and enhance creativity according to this study.

Our sense of smell is closely connected to our emotions — and that’s due to the way that our brains work. Unlike our other senses, the olfactory process take a direct route to our limbic systems, including the amygdala and hippocampus, the regions of our brains that control emotion and memory.

5 Ways to Create a Productive Workspace

This means that if we are thoughtful about the scents that we use in our workspaces, we can certainly help to reduce stress and boost productivity. Some of the most popular methods of creating a fragrant workspace include essential oil diffusers, burning candles, wax melters, burning incense, or simply spraying fragrance.

Whichever you choose, it’s important to be cognizant of other people in your workspace. Obviously if you work at home or in a small space, the sky is the limit for you — but since our sense of smell is so closely connected with our emotions, people tend to have different scent preferences. So if you work on a team, be sure to check with them first before integrating one of these methods into your workspace.

Now, let’s take a look at the kind of scents that help us regulate emotion and stress.

5 Scents that Help Us Regulate Emotions and Stress

From a number of sources that I’ve read, the following scents typically have this affect on us:

Rosemary — encourages clear thinking, improves memory and energises the mind.

Citrus — grapefruit can help to fight mental exhaustion, lemon is uplifting, orange can ease stress and bergamot oil can even be used to help treat depression

Lavender — reduces stress and anxiety

Peppermint — is energizing and refreshing and can aid concentration

Cinnamon — can help to fight mental fatigue

What’s my favorite? I enjoy burning incense in my personal workspace. There are so many scents to choose from, and I love how quickly they “transport” my workspace seemingly into a different world.

If smoke doesn’t sit well with you, you can always opt for a smokeless, flameless wax melter — perfect for creating subtle scents to shift your mood!

Wrap-Up: 5 Ways to Create a Productive Workspace

  1. Sight: Try to integrate natural light as much as possible, or at least use artificial lights that have an ability to change colors.
  2. Sound: To increase focus, try using noise and touch to your advantage.
  3. Touch: Good posture is important for maintaining focus, and changing up your phsyical position is important. Invest in a good quality, comfortable chair.
  4. Taste: Drink plenty of water and avoid sugary drinks. Tea is a great way to increase your focus, but there are plenty of other options out there.
  5. Smell: Our sense of smell is most closely connected to our emotions. Be cognizant of the scents you choose in your workspace to boost productivity.

What are some ways that you help improve your workspace? I’m always looking for new ways to increase my focus and be more productive, and investing in the right products can really make a difference in knocking out my day-to-day tasks more efficiently.

Jon Henning

Hi, I'm Jon. I write about emerging technology in architecture, engineering and design, and I want to help you push boundaries with the latest tech trends in the AEC industry.