Positive environments for pupils and staff

Interior design in a learning environment should enhance the performance of those within the building. Christine Boswell shares her advice for creating a stimulating school interior.

School, college and university is where we spend the most formative years of our lives and so it is important that these should be places that are firstly welcoming, and secondly stimulating and inspirational to our senses. At the same time they must provide a safe environment to study without being over stimulating or distracting.
A careful balance is required when designing these environments.

Good interior design within the education sector should be conducive to learning. Interior design in a learning environment should enhance the performance of those within the building, whether they are staff or pupils. Judith Heerwagon, a former scientist, advises the following: “A building can positively affect ability by providing comfortable ambient conditions and by reducing health and safety risks. Negative impacts on ability to do work are associated with conditions that are uncomfortable, distracting or hazardous. A building can positively affect an individual’s motivation by providing conditions that promote positive affective functioning. Moods create the ‘affective context’ for thought processes and behaviours, which are directly tied to motivation.”

The effect of colour
Creating a stimulating environment in a cost effective way can be achieved easily by the careful use of colour. Colour theory is particularly relevant in teaching, nurturing and learning environments. Bright colours are known to help individuals focus on tasks more accurately. Green is calming and blue creates clear creative thinking. Whilst red enhances energy, it can also induce anger so too much in a classroom environment should be avoided. Yellow allows for clear thinking and decision making whereas orange boosts self‑esteem and creates enthusiasm for life.

Due to the complexity of colours and the affect they can have on individuals, it is recommended to seek expert advice when planning using colours in an educational setting. Too much colour can be as disastrous as too little. Colour should be used strategically throughout buildings to compliment room usage. It can also be used in a scaled way to aid wayfinding.

Interior designers use a number of methods to help engage with students in the building, including shading from dark to light for fire exit routes; and creating zones in a multi‑floor building in different colour palettes to help students know where they are in a vast building complex. Interior designers also use lighter colours in dark spaces to help reflect natural light through the space.

Designing a stimulating room
As well as the structure of colour, the materials for the floors, walls and ceilings should be professionally specified to ensure non-toxic environments are created, which are sound acoustic and allergen free. Interior design experts have a vast knowledge of the most suitable materials and products to source for providing safe conditions in which to work and learn. Although these areas need to be technically specified they can still be exciting to look at as well.

When specifying floor finishes the biggest consideration should be ease of maintenance as this is the biggest hurdle to keep finishes looking good.

The low cost option may not always be the best choice in the long run, as it may cost more in maintenance or may not last as long as something more durable, but more expensive. For this reason, a good knowledge on interior design is vital in the education sector.

In particular, I am in favour of more expensive rubber woven flooring for high traffic areas as not only does it look
great, it has a very long shelf life and comes in sheet or shaped tiles that can create great floor patterns.

The other important quality is that the flooring is fibre free and therefore does not produce allergens.

Alternatively, slip-resistant safety vinyl flooring is now produced in a great variety of colours and even the cheapest of these can be cut and laid to produce zoned floor layouts or a design accent.

Natural fibre carpet or carpet tiles for classrooms or staff areas are also produced in wide colour ranges so colour schemes no longer need to be compromised.

Apart from the obvious painted wall, feature panels can be incorporated by the use of photographic wallpaper. This can be personalised to suit the subject matter of the learning environment, the buildings branding, or local surroundings to create an outside view in a windowless space.

Perforated MDF panels are a cost effective way of introducing texture, acoustic qualities and interest to sections of walls or ceilings. There are many patterns available to suit all designs, but I have recently used this type of self-coloured board with regularly spaced circular holes, for both wall and ceiling panels in a creative arts building.

Bulletin boards (soft boards or pinboards) can also be sourced in a good range of colours. These are particularly useful for student bedrooms or for individual classroom spaces as well as for staff rooms.

Textured felt panels can also be used to add colour and texture where extra acoustic quality is required, say in heavy traffic spaces, music rooms or quiet areas.

Textured plasterwork panels can also be designed from the outset of a new building to add interest. This method is particularly effective on a stairwell or other double height spaces.

Furniture and storage
Furniture is an obvious way to add a colour statement to a building. In areas of education, intended to inspire and engage, don’t play safe and go for grey. There are so many colours to choose from at no extra cost. Keep tables and desks neutral, but add chairs in a multi mix of colours. This will create a much more stimulating environment than a one colour scheme.

Chairs which are designed to last a long time are expensive at the time of purchase but very cost effective over the long term. Looking back at chair designs over the years, the DKR-2 chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1951 is still popular today being produced by Herman Millar in shell form in many colours.

Where a facilities manager may not think much of a metal storage locker, interior designers think of the purpose and design. Lockers can be massed in a variety of colours. This makes it much easier for individuals to find when they remember by colour rather than searching for a number in a mass of modules that all look the same. Create an artwork of lockers and make a colour statement.

Lighting should be functional but above all, bright. This is easy to achieve now that we have LED lighting to specify. Hopefully, gone are the days of yellow, gloomy lighting which did nothing to lift the spirit.

Lighting should be divided into ambient, task and mood lighting and ideally dimmable in student rooms and casual areas.

Cloakrooms and toilets
These are great areas that present a challenge in terms of design. Schools and universities have an even greater challenge to ensure that the facilities available are robust enough to withstand perhaps boisterous usage by hundreds of students every day.

Taps should be tough enough to avoid being wrenched from the wall, sinks are better inset, and wall surfaces should be easily cleanable. That said, the opportunity to introduce exciting design into these areas is to be welcomed.

This is a great opportunity to inject some fun into a scheme. Venesta produce some really fun designs for children’s cubicles, ages 2-11 years. Their ‘Lollipop’ range is my personal favourite, making a visit to the loo a stimulating experience rather than a necessity.

Ranges for the older education sectors are not quite so exciting but can be found in great colour ranges also. Interior designers understand the opportunities available to inject some vitality into otherwise uninspiring areas.

Simply using a low cost tile in multi colours to create patterns or images can transform a cloakroom into a pleasant and stimulating area. I recently found some larger wall tiles incorporating ‘street art’ which would not be out of place for teenagers.

Thanks to its durability, plastic mirrors withstand the rigours of school washrooms well, as they are difficult to smash. These must be fixed to a perfectly true wall or you can get a ‘hall of mirrors’ effect.

In summary, good design is essential for the well-being of students and staff in education. Interior design experts are specialists who take all factors into account to design an exciting and stimulating interior that works for all who use it.

Christine Boswell, is a registered interior designer at the British Institute of Interior Design (BIID), and head of interiors at Purcell UK.

Further information