Using the Psychology of Design to Boost Mood, Alleviate Stress, and Create Peace
We’re stuck at home — again. And many of us never left. Don’t you think it’s time you made your home your favorite place to be? A sanctuary of stress-release and a shrine to zen living? To get some intel on how to pull this off, we spoke with interior architect/designer Olivia Wetterau Luce, founder of Studio Liv Luce.
Luce shared that there’s a massive body of evidence that architecture and design impact our psychology. Our brains — on a subconscious level — respond to the area we reside in; the shapes and geometry, the color, the texture, the light. So if you want to feel calm you have to design your space to feel calm, too.
With Luce’s background in psychology (undergrad degree from the University of Southern California in psychology) and her current focus on design (masters in interior architecture at UCLA), she was the perfect source to tap for this query. Some of her biggest themes and insights: simplify, don’t go overboard, and choose things that bring you the most joy and comfort.
Colors — paint, furniture, accents, and more
Let’s start with something many of us can picture immediately: color. We asked Luce to walk us through calming — and uplifting! — colors, and how to use them to evoke a ~mood~ in a space.
For starters, it depends on the application, she explained. Where the color is going, what medium, etc. Is it a wall, or is it a pillow? This matters!
One area where she encourages you to get creative with colors that spark joy: the accents. They’re less fixed, less permanent (you can always buy a new throw or pillow cover), and less overwhelming. A little goes a long way.
“If we are talking accent colors for pillows, a side chair, etc., I think any color is fair game,” she said.
Now, as for the types of colors...
- To evoke a positive, happy mood: Think loud and warm. “Happy colors are generally bright, warm colors like yellow, orange, pink and red.”
- To feel more zen and serene: Dial it back, and think soft. “Pastel colors like peach, light pink, or lilac can also have an uplifting effect on your mood.” You can also go for neutral tones and cool tones here (think soft sand colors, or light blues and greens) to achieve a more serene effect.
- To feel rooted, in touch with feelings: “Go for a deep chocolate brown — chic and moody, or an olive green!”
In Luce’s opinion, there’s not a lot that’s off limits — unless it’s paint. “I would avoid any neon or bright colored walls in your bedroom,” she advised. “In addition, please don’t paint your walls a medium brown color ever [deep chocolate only]. The wrong shades of brown can feel sad and drab.” Luce also advises that a stark white — not a warm white — is another no, as it can visually and psychologically be a little more aggressive. The warm whites, she said, are more soothing and calm.
Let there be light
Light is one of the most effective, most important elements in creating a space that supports your mental wellbeing and mood. Many of us aren’t building or remodeling our space, and trying to make do with what we’ve got — here’s how to brighten things up without knocking out walls and adding windows.
- Use mirrors. “Mirrors stimulate the effect of a window, and they can add a sense of depth. They’re also great to bounce light around the room, therefore adding more light in general.”
- Paint it white. “White walls make the space feel and look bigger,” which can feel expansive and lighter.
- Check your bulb temp. Luce mentioned that artificial lights can definitely help in places where there’s not a lot of natural light, but that the temperature of the lightbulb matters. “I get this question all the time,” she said — Why do my lights look so [white, blue]? “It has to do with the color temperature,” she explained. “3000k simulates daylight, which is often too bright.” Her favorite home lighting is just a little bit lower — “My favorite for residential spaces is 2700k, which has a light warm glow. Look for color temperature next time you go to replace your bulbs!”
Cozy comforts — texture and furniture
When creating your own personal sanctuary at home, comfort is key (obviously). This is why material — texture — makes such a big difference. “The more comfortable the materials you choose, the better you’ll feel when interacting with objects in your room.” This is like a ‘touch it and spark joy’ kind of thing.
“Pick only those materials that feel right whenever you touch them, and for the furniture, opt for pieces that offer enough support while maintaining a soft texture. Mixing textural elements can create a sense of depth.”
Speaking of furniture, Luce brought up the zen design technique and theory of feng shui. “This practice teaches you that different materials have different meanings behind them,” she explained. “For example, wood elements represent kindness and compassion, while metal has qualities of joy, beauty, and precision.” In this way, the thoughtfulness you put into decorating and designing your home can be a calming practice of self care, too.
Artfully soothing — choosing art and accents
As for Luce’s own personal at-home sanctuary? Like any true designer, “The biggest thing for [her] is art,” she said. “There is no wall left untouched in my home.”
Here’s her word of advice, however: don’t go overboard (this is a recurring theme). “I do find gallery walls can create clutter,” she said. “If you have large walls to fill, think about diptychs or triptychs [two or three photos side by side, each being the same size] to fill the space instead.”
And don’t limit art to the walls: “I also love to display décor objects from my travels or gifts from friends,” she said. This is another way to evoke positive, loving feelings through memory and connection. “I have a story for just about every object in my home.”
Again, don’t go overboard with knicknacks. “Try to curate a bit so your space doesn’t look cluttered,” she said, because “Clutter can contribute to feelings of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm.” Accomplish this truly *zen* balance with this tip: “Play with size and scale — i.e., a big vase next to a small vase, different size coffee table books, etc.”
Bring nature inside — plants, flowers, and more
The plant craze is real, and Luce says there’s science behind why we’re so drawn to bringing figs and ficuses inside. “Studies have shown plants can decrease stress levels,” she explained. It’s true: a Japanese study showed that looking at a plant (or plants) for three minutes can lower stress levels.
But again, back to the idea of not going overboard: clutter can have the opposite effect. “There is a crazy millennial trend of stuffing about 50 plants in a small space,” she said. “To me, there can be too much of a good thing; unnecessary clutter can lead to more stress.” You don’t want to be on an episode of botanical hoarders.
“I am all about something living and green, especially if you are in a big city with less natural greenery around,” she said. “But my advice would be just to keep your plant collection manageable!”
And for those of you who have the anti-Midas touch with your plants, she has another option for you: “If you lack a green thumb, fresh flowers are always a good go to.” And, if you’re not a flower person, there’s a nature-inspired option even still! “If you really can’t be trusted around any living thing, studies have found nature photography to connect people with feelings of calm and peace.”
If you’re renovating…
If you happen to be in a position to renovate (or you’re in the process of building a home), she has the trifecta of making sure it’s calm, zen, and anxiety-relieving: “Good natural light, enough circulation space, and practical functionality and use of space.”
More calming tips to make your space less stressful
A few parting words and pieces of advice to follow.
1. Declutter! As you may have gathered, top of this list is clutter. “Clutter is agitating,” she said. “Feng shui suggests cleaning your workspace every day — I personally struggle with this because I am messy AF [creative people, right?] but an excessive amount of clutter stops us from having clarity of thought, and can weigh us down emotionally.” So before you get into design, start by cleaning up, donating, throwing things away, and getting organized.
2. Cover your tech. Whether we’re aware of it or not, tech can stress us out — and yes, this includes the Netflix machine known as the TV. Plus… all that blue light! Luce suggested covering things up as best you can — drawers, cabinets, etc. “Covering up technology can also help with stress levels because technological noise contributes to stress. Consider housing your TV in a cabinet or media chest. The more covered, the more zen.
3. Find your balance. Final bit of advice — you’ll know what makes you feel good and what doesn’t, so experiment a bit. For instance, Luce said that “Some people find mixing patterns to be irritating,” but she personally finds joy in the juxtaposition of prints and patterns. However, if this feels cluttered or overwhelming to you (again — the clutter concept) she suggests you “Opt for solid materials in soothing neutrals and wood tones.”