Physical Space & Your Business Identity

Your business identity is mirrored in the physical space of your office. A visitor’s experience of your office space, and the space around the office, should mirror your business intention. Far too often the experience we have of a physical space detracts from the identity of the business.

Whether it is the sparkling new dentist’s office without a coat rack, a new restaurant with a glass entry door covered in fingerprints, broken asphalt steps outside of a lawyer’s office, or an international financial management company that has garbage on its lawn, neglected, dirty, and carelessly maintained spaces can carry symbolic significance that influences our experience of the business.

What is your intention for the space? What is the visual message you want to convey? What is your mission statement? What do you want a visitor to your business to feel? What do you want them to infer from the experience of the space about you and the business? What descriptive words describe your business? Examples: efficient, soothing, professional, natural, lively.

Most businesses would like to create a welcoming environment where a client or visitor feels cared about and senses from the environment that his or her needs and expectations will be met by the business. Over time you can return to these lists to revise and reinvigorate your office environment.

Environmental Considerations in an Office Space

The following environmental considerations ensure a positive experience for the client or visitor:
Waste baskets should always be empty when a client arrives.
Water (along with Kleenex, coat hooks, and anything else a client may need) should be visible, if available.
Office temperature should be something you can control – not something for which you apologize.
Odors should be minimal. The environment should be mildew- and scent-free.
Noise should be able to be regulated.
Lighting should be flexible and appropriate. This includes the ability to control direct sunlight.
Surfaces should be clean. This includes windows and glass doors.
Plants should be the appropriate size for the space.
Magazines should reflect the interests of the clients and be neatly displayed.
Furniture should be comfortable and offer good support.
Chairs should be in all the positions where a client will need them. Sit on all your chairs to see what your clients will see, feel and hear in these locations.

When renting or buying an office space or retail space you should review air duct cleanliness, air temperature control, ambient noise, visibility of an office or business sign from the street (from all directions), rules about signage, outdoor lighting at night, garbage location and removal, quality of interior lighting, number of parking spaces, handicap access.

Ideally, you should consider who the neighboring businesses are, both the businesses that share the building and the businesses inhabiting the buildings close by. You want to consider any odor or noise that may impact your business, the professional tone of these businesses, who their customers are and what the feel is of the buildings themselves.

If the space shares a common area or shares an exterior entrance with other businesses you should review security policies, who cleans the windows, the arrangement for snow removal (if that is relevant), who maintains the landscape, who cleans the bathrooms (and how often), whether there are places to hang coats and put umbrellas, whether there is a smoking policy.

Design Considerations in Your Office Space

Individuals have their own preferences for the amount of novelty and contrast in their visual fields. This preference also varies depending on culture, activity, and context. Novelty entails tension, or extra demand, which can be appreciated if traveling or on vacation, but can be unwelcome if you are already under stress. You may value variety and a fast-paced work environment to hold your attention, but in order to restore yourself you may need a quiet experience at home. In your office or business, what is the appropriate level of visual novelty?

Sometimes choices are made through habit, rather than because the result meets your needs or meets a conscious intention. There may be themes you have consciously chosen to emphasize through a collection of objects, or a selection of preferred colors. There may also be themes, unconsciously expressed, such as clutter, neglect, or unfriendliness which may be helpful to recognize and address. Visit your business as if you were arriving there for the first time. What information do you receive? What are your first impressions?

A term I use is legibility. What I mean by this is a scene that is easy to decipher, where the uses and nature of a place are easily understood. Often this is achieved by an uncluttered sense of depth and by smooth surfaces. Many places are, in this sense, illegible. Think of a strip mall, where many businesses share a driveway and compete for your attention with large billboards. Or an office where you are left to wonder where to go once you enter. Most schools are absolutely illegible environments. The entrances are not obvious, and the building is so maze-like that until students have learned their way around, they are literally strangers in a strange land.

When approaching your office building, is it obvious where to park and how to enter the building?

Is it clear to a visitor what to do when they enter the building, the business, the office?

Is it hard to focus in any of the rooms or spaces? Is there a great deal of clutter or visual distraction? Some people combine so many styles, objects, textures, or textiles that the overall effect is muddied. There is no clear sense of where one is. This is often the result of overly zealous design.

More is not always better. It is true that complexity can engage, interest, and stir. It can also threaten and be too stimulating to invite relaxation. Find out what really enhances the setting and what merely gilds the lily. Find the essence of the room or building, and allow it to shine through.

Unity in a setting can soothe or bore. Unity can be achieved through the continuity, harmony, or constancy of the sensory experience. Harmony can be created through combining similar items, or by tying together disparate pieces of information with unifying themes, colors, and surfaces. It can be desirable to provide harmony where people are already experiencing a great deal of new information, are under physical or emotional stress, or are expected to relax.

Continuity provides a comfortable transition, whether from one room to another, or between a building and its surroundings. Colors, styles, rugs, trim, art and art frames, textures, furniture, signage, plantings and patterns can all be used to create continuity.

The proportions of rooms and what they contain impact the experience of harmony or unity. Different proportions can be used for emphasis. A massive desk can make someone at work appear powerful, while making a client feel smaller. The visual imbalance is experienced as an emotional imbalance. Sometimes a feeling of being ill at ease in a space, or dissatisfied with furniture that you loved in the store, can be attributed to something being out of proportion.

Consider movement versus stillness. This is not as straightforward as merely moving or staying still. The arrangement of objects of disparate size, shape, color, or meaning can create a sense of movement, while uncluttered areas can feel still. Spaces that enable people to quickly move through the space add to a feeling of movement. A view of trees or water can create a sense of movement or stillness.

Besides failing to anticipate the needs of a client, the most frequently encountered factors that detract from a business identity are inadequate attention to cleaning and maintaining the space, over-personalizing the space, and the absence of a cohesive design experience.

When creating and evaluating the message of a physical space, as a business person or entrepreneur you are best equipped to anticipate the experience of a client or visitor when you

  • Begin with a clear awareness of your intention, how your personal history may influence your expression, and any fears or concerns about your business identity
  • Carry a sensitivity to the symbolism of actions, objects, spaces, and their interactions
  • Understand that each person responds to each form of conscious or unintentional communication through the lens of his or her personal history, current emotional state, learning style, and sensory processing
  • Have a vocabulary for the qualities of the built environment.