Think of how many common expressions we use to talk about the significance of simply sitting down: "From where I sit …" before expressing a point of view. "Sit with it a moment …" while contemplating a decision. "Having a seat at the table …" to feel empowered. Where and how we sit has a lot to do with our psychological state of mind when interacting with other people. Even while many of our interactions these days are done staring at a computer screen, it’s still essential to do some face-to-face: an important client meeting, a doctor’s visit, even a dinner out with friends. In those cases, it’s important to have clear, unambiguous seating that helps us effectively relate to one another, and allows us to feel supported both physically and emotionally.
As designers at Continuum, we have done a lot of thinking about how seating can set the stage for personal interaction. Part of the equation is ergonomic—creating design that is comfortable, fits a body well, and will not lead to discomfort or injury over time. But equally important is the psychology of seating. Subtle changes in elements such as pitch, height, padding, and seating configuration can dramatically change a person’s mindset during an interaction—and even the interaction itself. Creating the "right seat" is paradoxically about moving people: to act, collaborate, make a decision, or transition within environments. As these examples show, in different situations, that can mean very different things:
When negotiating, it’s common to feel anxious about not getting the best deal—especially in a situation like a car dealership where customers fear they lack information to avoid being "taken for a ride." In creating seating for the sales process for one major car company, we empowered customers by allowing them to sit forward and upright. Our research showed, perhaps counter-intuitively, that empowering customers actually causes them to stay longer in the dealership and be more likely to close a deal, creating a win for the company as well. It’s only when people feel intimidated that they regain control by leaving the situation. By creating an empowering experience, we help ensure they will return again to the dealership, and refer friends as well.
Nothing could be worse than feeling uncomfortable when you are sick. In helping design Herman Miller’s Nala chair for medical settings, we took care to create something that would remind patients of the comforts of home, rather than a cold institutional environment. In addition, we put the arms higher and more forward in order to allow patients experiencing pain or limited mobility to get in and out more easily, and incorporated a pneumatic control to adjust to an infinite number of inclines to maximize comfort. By making patients feel more independent, we help take away some of the fears and difficulties in a time when they are not feeling their best.
In recent years, banking customers have become less dependent on the traditional bank teller and more confident managing their money for themselves online. Yet they still need professional financial advice and consultation. When we helped banking giant BBVA design a new service model for banking, we acknowledged this trend by creating circular "pods" where customers could sit side-by-side with a bank representative in a private space to review their finances. By allowing customers and representatives to see the same information on the same screen, we created a more collaborative environment. Customers can feel in control of their money, while at the same time, they can learn from the expertise of the bank employee in making the right financial decisions.
The Millennial generation is all about equality: flattening hierarchies and up-ending traditional formality with more free-form ways of interaction. In designing 2ovens, a restaurant by the national Italian chain Bertucci’s catering specifically to Millennials, we wanted to incorporate those values in the seating we chose. Instead of chairs, we used tall stools that put diners on the same level with servers so they can feel like they are hanging out together in a fun, open environment rather than "being served." The stools also enable spontaneous interaction with other diners, allowing customers to catch glances across the room, to mingle with standing bar goers, and stand up themselves to make an expressive point. The overall effect is to create a high-energy social environment that offers Millennials the freedom to be themselves.
While all of these forms of seating have their advantages in service environments, they also hold lessons for the office environment as well. Office chairs have traditionally been about status—think Gordon Gecko in his big padded office chair (or even the ultra-cool Hollywood exec in his Herman Miller Aeron chair). In today’s office, however, it’s become more important to stress communication and collaboration. The available seating should enable employees to shift between say, upright seat for typing, a comfortable couch for creative work, a round table for collaboration, or high stools to easily circulate in a working group. Creating a variety of seats for different work habits not only enhances productivity but also improves morale by making employees feel like they are able to operate at their maximum potential.
The common thread tying together all of these modes of seating is an understanding of the values and goals of the participants in an interaction. Once we understand where a person "sits" emotionally, we can design seating that helps to support them physically and psychologically—maximizing the productivity and enjoyment of the moment of sitting down with another person. At a time when our social interactions increasingly involve staring at screens, that may be more important than ever.