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Physical layout elements


Disciplines > Workplace design > Physical layout elements

Aisles | Doors | Windows | Walls | Pillars | Ceilings | Flooring | Partitions | Signs | Worktops | Storage | See also


Physical elements within buildings all have an effect on how the space is experienced and all can be used to create the experience desired.


  •       Highways most of the way. Primary circulation routes, like freeways, that take you most of the way to your destination are helpful.

    • The last part of the journey on the byways of secondary circulation is also helpful in slowing down the traveler and providing a sense of arrival in a distinct locale.

  •       Wider highways. People walk faster in wider aisles. Narrowing the aisles will slow them down.

  •       Insulation and interest along primary routes. Working adjacent to primary circulation can be distracting. On the other hand, a primary route which has high walls along it can isolating and confusing.

    • Find a balance that suits the local environment. Seek to maintain social connection, avoiding high partitions where possible.

    • Particularly where high partitions are used, provide visual interest along the route.

  •       Two-person aisles. Narrow aisles that cause people to touch one another (or move to avoid this) as they pass make people feel uncomfortable.

  •       Walking that flows. Moving along aisles, both the highways and byways, can be an easy and comfortable flow or it can be awkward and stilted.

    • Obtuse angles, rounded corners, smooth curves, clear signage, adequate width, no obstacles, all contribute to flow.

  •       Moderate aisle length. Short aisles with twists and turns create a confusing maze. Long aisles are tiring on the eyes and can make navigation more difficult.

    • Staggering the long aisles reduces the sense of distance. Functional or decorative items can be put in the corners created. Signs and different colors to these corners aid navigation.

  •       Dead ends discourage visitors and the secondary circulation aisle becomes de-facto team space.

    •  This may be desirable for team working and privacy.

    • It may also be undesirable as it discourages ad hoc visitors.

  •       Looped side aisles off primary routes, balance a degree of quiet and privacy with the ability of people to walk by without feeling they are intruding.

  •       Main aisles. Workstations next to primary circulation routes are easier to get to and easier to visit. They may also be noisier and are less private.

  •       T-junctions. Where aisles cross, or at Y-junctions, people can easily collide as each assumes they have right of way. T-junctions prevent this.

    • The 90 degree junction also warns the person on the side road to stop.

  •       Safe obstacles. Aisles can be useful places to put cupboards, printers, and so on. However these can create aisle ‘pinches’ and be hazardous for passers-by. Sharp corners can also hurt the unwary, especially those travelling at speed.


  •       Glazed panels in doors:

    • Allow people to see who is on the other side and thus avoid hitting them.

    • Transmit light.

    • Reduce privacy (although this can be mitigated with translucency or limited views).

  •       Easy to open. Doors should be easy to open for anyone.

    • Auto-closing mechanisms can be heavy. Damping can slow the opening rather too much.

    • Doors that are heavy to move are uncomfortable, especially for weaker people.

    • Doors that are light can bang open, hitting a person on the other side.

    • Round handles require a greater grip than levers.

  •       Obvious opening method. In many doors it is not clear whether you push or pull to open them.

    • Flat plates are obviously to push. Big grab handles are likely to be pulled.

    • Signs saying ‘Push’ should not be visible from the other side of the door (the subconscious will ‘helpfully’ reverse it for you).

    • Doors which open both ways avoid the pull-when-you-should-push accidents.

    • Lever handles always push down. Round handles can turn either way.


  •       Windows let people see in and out, and allow natural light in.

    • Windows in ceilings face the light and can enliven a dark building core.

  •       There can be too much light. Where there is strong sunlight, provide controllable shades.

  •       Window seats are often ‘prime real estate’ and may be viewed as a status perk.

    • It is more egalitarian and motivating for the workforce if all can have access the light.

    • Walkways past windows enable people to refresh at least with natural light.

    • Social areas near windows help to create them as ‘people magnets’.


  •       Large expanses of same-color bare walls create tedium. Busy, multi-colored walls create confusion.

    • Use light, color, pictures, etc. to add interest to walls.

  •       Rather than breaking them up with bland ‘corporate art’ or uninteresting safety posters, add pictures and posters that will be of interest and stimulation to staff and customers.

    • Eg. have a ‘holiday photo’ competition and post blown-up versions.

    • Show products/services and customers and how the former is serving the latter.

  •       Bright colors on large expanses are overpowering. Use stronger colors for highlights.

  •       Dark walls, make a room darker and seem smaller. This can be useful for cozy and intimate areas.

  •       To sustain light in an area, paint reflective walls in light colors, such as those opposite windows.

  •       Wood on walls is relaxing and can give an impression of luxury.

  •       Mind the sound effects. Hard walls reflect sound. Flat walls reflect the sound in specific directions. Curved and angled walls can create a ‘lens’ effect, focusing the sound in a limited area.

  •       Lit to the top. Walls which are not lit at the top, for example where ceiling lights are a distance from them, are darker the top. They reflect less light and contribute to a gloomier atmosphere.

  •       Vertical storage.

  •       White-walled meeting rooms. In meeting rooms, walls are used to project onto, to hold flipchart paper and to write on. All three can be accomplished with metal whiteboards.

    • The only disadvantage is the blandness created. This may be countered with temporary coverings and limiting the white areas to where it can be used for writing.

    • Projecting onto whiteboards also is not as good as onto proper screens. Matt screens show color without other reflections, such as ghosts of what was last written on the screen.


  •       Pillars block view, but are an opportunity to add interest, such as painting them in contrasting colors, mounting spotlights on them or hanging plants from them.

  •       Pillars in seating areas steal space.

    • Use for storage, printers, etc.

  •       The height of pillars can be overpowering, both in cubes and as people walk past them.

  •       Pillars connect the floor to the ceiling.

    • Shading them dark lower down and light higher up will exaggerate the height.

    • Reversing this will reduce the apparent height.

  •       Protect pillars from damage. Where they can be knocked, such as near doorways and on trolley routes, they can be damaged.

    • They can be protected with corner guards and sheaths.

    • They can also be placed behind cupboards and walls.

  •       Pillars provide shelter. Putting printers and cupboards next to them provide a degree of protection.

  •       Pillars provide support. They are solid and can have walls anchored to them.


  •       Ceilings that absorb sound can make a big difference, especially where they are lower. Similar-looking ceiling tiles can have very different sound absorbing qualities.

  •       Ceilings of different height add variety and interest that can always been seen.

    • This can include slung panels, cut-ins for such as mock roof windows, etc.

  •       Signs and other items can be hung from ceilings to add interest and help wayfinding. They should not obstruct fire sprinklers, of course.


  •       Floors are the one thing we touch almost all of the time, giving us subtle tactile impressions.

  •       Floors that signal change. Changes in flooring sent signals that of change, e.g. ‘you are now somewhere different’.

    • Flooring changes at entrances can be simple and economic.

  •       Hide the dirt. Single-colored and light carpets show dirt and wear very easily.

  •       Light carpets reflects light and make an areas seem larger.


  •        High partitions give privacy, hide distractions and allow storage and pin-ups to be hung there. They also block light and have only a very limited effect at reducing the spread of noise.

    • Where people cannot see others, they may feel alone and lonely. They will also act as if they are by themselves, for example by speaking more loudly on the phone.

  •       Partial privacy can be obtained with translucency or limited-height panels that block seated views, but allow standing views.

  •       Partitions, particularly high ones, have a similar effect to walls, in their separation of people.

  •       Only taller people can see over 6 foot partitions. Even then, the partitions block view if they are more than a few feet away.

  •       When sitting down, people cannot see over partitions which are about 4’6”.

  •       Curved tops to panels can block the line of direct sight of a person, whilst allowing them to see past the panels if they simply lean to the side.


  •       Signs tell people where they are now, what to do and where to go.

    • Wayfinding is a common use of signs.

  •       A consistent format allows people to easily spot signs.

    • This includes color, font, shape and size.

    • There are company standards for formal signs.

  •       People pick up indications of where they are and where to go from all kinds of things.

    • Including pillars.

  •       Within a single area, hanging signs can be seen from a distance.

    • This is often used to indicate where groups sit.

    • They also help give a sense of identity for the group.

  •       Building and pillar numbers are a traditional and well-understood navigation system within the company.

    • They may be bland and uninteresting, but they are simple and they work well for verbal communication of ‘where I am’.

  •       In larger sites, ‘you are here’ maps help people navigate over longer distances.

  •       There are mandatory signs, including EHS notices, fire exit signs, etc., that must be followed.


  •       Worktops support computers and other equipment as well as papers and books.

  •       They are often used as near-at-hand same-height shelving storage, for example the ‘in-tray’ and simple stacking of books and folders (using the worktop as a bookshelf).

  •       Some people have an ‘untidy’ storage system, keeping things in piles on the desk. This is helpful where


  •       Shelves support books and equipment that are usually not in use.

  •       Frequently used things to hand. Nearby shelves are most suited to things referred to frequently. Things used less frequently may be stored in a more distant location.

    • Rule of thumb: once a day: within reach; once a month: nearby cupboard; once a year: remote location. These are moderated by size: small items can be kept closer for longer.

  •       Shelves are also used to hold identity symbols, which may be anything from family photos to old course notes (they may never be looked at, but by reminding them of their history, they reaffirm the person’s identity).

  •       Vertical storage gives immediate visual availability. It includes hanging folder-holders and pin-up space.

See also

Physical design principles

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