Art in Evidence-Based Workplace Design

modern office art

Evidence-based design (EBD), or the process of making decisions about the built environment based on research findings, is typically associated with healthcare design. However, its evidence-informed consideration of the influence of the physical layout of environments on patient outcomes, social interactions, and organizational culture is expanding its employment beyond healthcare architecture. As architects and designers concern themselves with the physiological, psychological, and social impacts of the built environment on occupants across industries, they employ the EBD process in the design of spaces ranging from residences to office spaces. In Evidence-based Design for Multiple Building Types, authors Kirk Hamilton and David Watkins stress that the EBD process is not an attempt to codify design based on research. It is instead an attempt to find the best solutions for design problems presented by each project. This sentiment is supported by Sailer et al. (2009) in a presentation on the use of evidence-based design in office architecture. They argue that case-dependent research and evidence gathering in workplace design should also acknowledge the many different forms an organization can take, as the relationship between space and organization manifests in both generic and specific ways.
Efficiency, adaptability, and longevity are considerations that drive the creation of design strategies based on qualitative and quantitative data, peer-reviewed research findings, and other credible sources. The desire to enhance employee well-being also informs the use of evidence-based design in the workplace. Research into the influence of the physical environment on employee well-being shows that it can have a significant impact on a range of psychological, social, and productivity-related processes like stress-reduction, emotional well-being, cognitive performance, and job satisfaction. Art contributes to well-being in workplace design as an enrichment of the physical environment. A study by Craig Knight and Alexander Haslam on the effect of workplace environments on employees finds that enriched environments, particularly those enhanced by art and plants, are more conducive to well-being and productivity, particularly if employees can have a degree of control over the appearance of the space.  Aesthetically deprived environments are associated with greater passivity, withdrawal, and negative feelings about work. Results from a 2014 study of an Australian organization with an art collection show that participants believe the art in their workplace not only generally enhances the environment, but also promotes social interactions, elicits emotional reactions, facilitates making personal connections, and fosters learning. The characteristics of the art collection they value are its creativity, diversity, quality, and connection to the mission of the organization.
Research on appropriate artwork choices for evidence-based design in healthcare demonstrates the benefits of nature art to create a connection with the natural environment and reduce stress. Nature art plays a role in the reduction of stress, as well as anger, in the workplace. A study by Kweon et al. notes that one in four American employees find themselves chronically angry. Anger produces negative outcomes such as interpersonal aggression, poor work performance, absenteeism, and increased turnover. In office conditions with aesthetically engaging abstract and nature art posters, the states of anger and stress are experienced less; and an increased number of nature images decreases anger because they reduce stress levels.  Abstract art, often regarded as inappropriate in some healthcare spaces, also contributes to well-being. In a Danish study into patients’ use and experience of art in a hospital environment, patients chose twenty paintings, including several abstracts. The findings challenge the theory of emotional congruence in evidence-based design, which posits that current emotional states bias a person’s response to environmental stimuli; and informs the avoidance of the use of abstract art. The study shows a positive effect on the emotional state of patients regardless of the degree of the artwork’s abstraction. The researchers conclude that one facet of art’s positive impact is its potential to create atmosphere and promote social interaction by addressing people socially, culturally, and existentially as individual human beings.
In the workplace, art – particularly impressionist and abstract artwork – also enhances creativity. This claim is substantiated by neuroscientists whose expanding interest in art, like architecture, is resulting in a better understanding of our responses to works of art. They use artwork in studies to understand what happens in our brain when we look at different subjects such as landscape, portrait, still-lifes, or abstract art. A study by Semir Zeki using brain scans of participants shows that specific parts of our brain are active when we experience art as beautiful or ugly. The part of the brain in which the subjective experience of beauty is localized ties it to desire, love, and pleasure. In a University of Toronto News interview regarding a recent study on the different ways people view and appreciate art, Oshin Vartanian observes, “[t]he coolest thing we found is that areas of the brain involved in processing emotion and those that activate our pleasure and reward systems are also being engaged. We also found that the brain’s default mode network – the area associated with internally-oriented thinking like daydreaming, thinking about the future, or retrieving memories – is also activated. So what’s happening is that areas associated with more contemplative responses are being triggered automatically when people view art even if they don’t have instructions to judge or think about it critically.” Art prompts a shift in thinking that allows us to consider things differently and make new connections.
Beyond what happens in our brains and our emotional responses, meaning is another consideration in our experience of art. Studies have found that our experience of art changes when we have more information about it, whether knowledge gained through the development of art expertise or provided information. In the latter instance, for example, a study on art appreciation and meaning by Jakesch and Leder finds that people prefer a certain level of ambiguity in the information provided about abstract art. People like it more and find it more interesting when given an ambiguous interpretive description. Jakesch and Leder conclude that the findings reveal that ambiguity, a characteristic of abstract art, is a factor in aesthetic appreciation.
The above research findings inform the collection below. Incorporating a range of artwork, it explores interpretations and representations of the natural environment while considering aesthetic creativity and diversity to address the physiological, psychological, and social well-being of employees.


  • Chatterjee, A. (2014) The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Hamilton, K. and Watkins, D.H. (2009) Evidence-based Design for Multiple Building Types. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Heerwagen, J.H. et al. (1995) ‘Environmental Design, Work, and Well Being: Managing Occupational Stress through Changes in the Workplace Environment’, AAOHN Journal, 43 (9), pp. 458-468.
  • Jakesch, M. and Leder, H. (2009) ‘Finding meaning in art: Preferred levels of ambiguity in art appreciation’, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62(11), pp. 2105–2112. doi: 10.1080/17470210903038974.
  • Knight, C. and Haslam, S.A. (2010)’The Relative Merits of Lean, Enriched, and Empowered Offices: An Experimental Examination of the Impact of Workspace Management Strategies on Well-Being and Productivity’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16 (2), pp. 158-172.
  • Kweon, B.-S. et al. (2008) ‘Anger and Stress: The Role of Landscape Posters in an Office Setting’, Environment and Behavior, 40(3), pp. 355–381. doi: 10.1177/0013916506298797.
  • Nielsen, S.L. et al. (2017) ‘How do patients actually experience and use art in hospitals? The significance of interaction: a user-oriented experimental case study’, International Journal Qualitative Studies in Health and Well-being, 12(1): 1267343. doi: 10.1080/17482631.2016.1267343
  • Sailer, K. et al. (2009) ‘Evidence-Based Design: Theoretical and Practical Reflections of an Emerging Approach in Office Architecture. In: Undisciplined! Design Research Society Conference 2008, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK, 16-19 July 2008.
  • Thomas, J. (2011) An holistic evaluation of the workplace: understanding the impact of the workplace environment on satisfaction, perceived productivity and stimulation. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University.