Concurrents – Environmental Psychology: Infection-Stopping Design

concurrents-infection2Current discussions of the Zika virus, and how to stop its spread, bring thoughts of infection-busting design to mind.

In a 2010 article titled “Viral Cities” that appeared in “Places,” Thomas Fisher, dean of the architecture school at the University of Minnesota, thoughtfully addressed relationships between design and disease epidemics: “It [effective design] may involve our paying more attention to those elements of buildings – door knobs, light switches, restroom faucets, and the like – that we now know are points of contact for transmitting disease. Here, too, both old customs and high tech are relevant. Hand shaking used to be a sign of solidarity among members of the same (viral) community – something we would do well to remember when we greet strangers. And motion detection and remote sensing technology – now often viewed as a convenience – may become necessities as we seek ways of operating the designed environment without coming in physical contact with it.”

Researchers from the University of Miami recently conducted research related to thwarting the spread of epidemics (for a related press release, visit Their findings complement Fisher’s comments. Pedro Manrique, a physicist at the University of Miami, summarizes the work he did with Neil Johnson, another physicist at the University of Miami: “‘Our research shows that the length of time that visitors linger in a popular place [such as airports, hospitals, and schools] can have a highly counterintuitive effect on the number of people eventually infected. Being present in the popular place is what makes people susceptible to the infection, and under certain circumstances, we find that the best solution is to increase the flow of people in and out of the popular place [their mobility] – not to reduce it [via quarantine, for example] as one might expect.’” As Johnson details, often quarantines of popular places are “completely impractical.” Effective circulation can thus be a key driver keeping disease in check.

The University of Miami team also reports “that the contagion process that the team studied covers a spectrum of phenomena, from viruses like Zika to extreme political ideas;” the researchers discuss infection transmission via both physical and electronic means.

Efficient circulation is often an important design consideration, but this University of Miami research indicates that it is desirable not only for user satisfaction but also for stopping the spread of epidemics, both physical and thought-related. At some organizations, it may be reasonable to anticipate circumstances that lead workers and/or visitors to think negative thoughts; in those situations streamlined ways to move through spaces that people will inevitably visit, such as company cafeterias, seem especially desirable.

Environmental psychologists long ago began to discuss the related fact that in crowded spaces emotions are intensified – if the general feeling among those present is upbeat, sentiments become even more positive, for example. Design that keeps people moving makes crowding less likely.

A design prescription can prevent infections, both physical and mental.

Sally Augustin, PhD, a cognitive scientist, is the editor of Research Design Connections (, a monthly subscription newsletter and free daily blog, where recent and classic research in the social, design, and physical sciences that can inform designers’ work are presented in straightforward language. Readers learn about the latest research findings immediately, before they’re available elsewhere. Sally, who is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, is also the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009) and, with Cindy Coleman, The Designer’s Guide to Doing Research: Applying Knowledge to Inform Design (Wiley, 2012). She is a principal at Design With Science ( and can be reached at