The Psychology of Meeting Room Design

Ten tips for creating an event space that will spark the attention, imagination and delight of attendees.


Spatial factors must be accounted for in order to produce a fully engaging event: The physical meeting space, atmosphere, and learning and social layouts of a venue each subconsciously affect the way meeting-goers will navigate the conference. Yet many current conference design models seem to focus solely on logistical considerations, not accounting for the human experience of the layout.

"Our brains are so adapted to make associations with the environment. Whether we want to or not, we link our experiences and their settings, and those two things together produce our behavior."
- Winifred Gallagher, author, The Power of Place

The following guide is excerpted from the Mindful Event Design: The Psychology of Physical Meeting Environments white paper produced by PSAV, a global event production company based in Schiller Park, Ill. Authors Janet Sperstad, CMP, director of the meeting and event management program at Madison College, and Andrea E. Sullivan, M.A., founder of BrainStrength Systems, dive into the psychology behind meeting room layouts and how planners can better cater to event attendees' neurological delights. 

Creating a Brain-Friendly Meeting Room

1. Opt for Open Space

Cluttering the trade-show floor with booths and chairs narrows available walking space and leaves attendees feeling claustrophobic. Psychological spatial discomfort affects all industries: Herb Sorenson's Inside the Mind of the Shopper reveals that 85 percent of surveyed retail consumers report more satisfactory experiences when products are marketed in open settings. The same idea holds true for buyer and supplier interactions on the exhibit floor: Displays, booths and interactions each seem more desirable when they're presented in an open, inviting and comfortable way.

Adding a foot or two to the width of any walkway is likely to generate more traffic in a given area, as extra space makes people comfortable on a subliminal level. Even more, adding natural elements reminiscent of open space, such as plants or a backdrop of the beach, draws people near -- their brains connect such imagery with positive feelings. Make a commitment to accommodate attendees' spatial comfort and the result will likely be more traffic, attention and engagement.

2. Provide Environmental Variety

The human brain requires balance -- time for purposeful work, time for networking and socializing, time for reflection and time for fun. There are individual differences as well: Some people gain energy from exciting and stimulating presentations; others recharge best during a quiet conversation in a serene space. It's part of the meeting planner's job to design the event environment in such a way that caters to all needs. 

Take advantage of decorating with muted tones (grayed, dulled or desaturated colors) in conversation spaces and bright hues in high-energy interaction areas. Add depth to meeting spaces by playing quiet music in working and recharging spaces. Incorporate huddle rooms that can be used at exhibit booths for impromptu meetings with a sense of privacy. Include white boards, note pads or flip charts throughout collaborative work areas. The main idea is to maximize space depending on the environment you wish the area to embody. Not all meeting spaces should look uniform, even though they're in the same venue.

3. Designate Public Areas

People naturally gravitate to where they'll find friends and colleagues; where they can get a cup of coffee and chat with whoever else happens to be taking a beverage break; where they can check in to see what others have seen throughout the conference and what they recommend. Designating such spaces creates a sense of place for the attendee, a "home base."

The recent trend to incorporate a trade show "town square" and other gathering spaces are prime examples of this. Bottom line: Provide a space where attendees can comfortably gather and socialize with purpose. 

4. Provide Novelty

The subconscious brain is naturally drawn to novel experiences. Such interactions elicit the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, giving off a lift in spirit, increase in alertness, motivation and an activation of the internal rewards system. Experiment with new technologies or interactive activities to garner the intrigue of your audience. New and exciting forms of technology, such as projections -- video mapping or transparent LCD screens and display systems -- are fascinating yet easy ways to create a distinctive environment that draws attention and fosters a stronger sense of engagement.

5. Optimize Lighting

Lighting is a simple, highly effective means of transforming an event space. Bright lights intensify the initial emotional reaction attendees have to stimuli. Dim lights turn down emotions, ideal for rational decision-making and clear-headed negotiations. Keep lighting balanced in all respects. Too bright, and the event space might be described as "harsh," leading to negative overall attendee perceptions. Too dim, and the darkness might tell the brain it's time to sleep.

If you aren't happy with the in-house standard lighting, keep in mind the power of uplighting and additional LED fixtures to engage the brain, cultivate distinct moods or draw attention. Wall projections using lighting and computer mapping can be used to turn an indoor space into an outdoor space. The technology can wrap an entire ballroom or create an amazing entrance to the event. Minimally, you can change the lighting scheme throughout the day to complement or even counter expected attendee emotions; e.g., using soft lighting in the morning, followed by high-energy effects after lunch or at the end of a long day.

6. Offer User-Friendly Wayfinding 

Navigational difficulty and confusion are consistent pain points for large events and/or those with a growing base of first-time attendees. Overly complex systems and layouts are frustrating and waste attendees' time and mental resources. Keep navigation assistance simple.

• Communicate directions clearly and comprehensively.

• Offer maps within all event resources (website, email communication, event app, etc.).

• Tap volunteers to act as guides throughout the venue.

Cross-referencing will most likely be necessary so attendees can find what interests them, including people, presentations and exhibits. 

7. Incorporate Emerging Tech

Populus, a collective of architects, designers, technical experts and industry veterans, reports on the emergence of intelligent venues that incorporate technology to improve operations and make them more sustainable with engaging experiences. 

They discuss the profound changes in the event experience brought on by the evolution of technology, including everything from social media to augmented reality. Planners should stay on top of new technologies that can enhance the attendee experience -- think about the event app, which has gone relatively quickly from an emerging technology to a nearly essential tool, and one that can do volumes to improve engagement.

8. Evoke Emotions

Lighting, color, sound, architecture and scent can all be used to evoke certain emotions. Upon entering an expansive cathedral, for example, one's eyes tend to shift upward toward the tall ceiling; the light coming through stained-glass windows can create a sense of awe or peace. A small and cozy room with comfortable furniture and recessed lighting, on the other hand, might relax and elicit a sense of home. Keep in mind the sensory impact such setups can have.

Music can be piped in to enhance whichever emotions should be ignited. Audio-visual technologies can be used to create areas targeted at producing specific experiences and moods. Color is an environmental factor that can be used to heighten emotional response, increasing engagement, learning and memory while also influencing the frame of mind. More is not better, however. Keep external stimuli simple and targeted to the anticipated attendee experience. 

9. Bring in the Outdoors

Greenery and natural settings facilitate attention restoration and reduce stress. The effect is so pronounced that there is now "Attention Restoration Therapy," a technique that uses natural spaces to calm anxiety and fight depression. Nature settings, projections or even a faux window overlooking a natural scene can have the same sort of calming effect on event attendees. Implementing outdoor seating and interaction areas will further increase that effect.

10. Provide Spaces for Fun and Relaxation

Situations requiring sustained mental effort cause attendees to engage in what's called "directed attention," which requires increased exertion over time. Like overworked muscles, directed attention gets fatigued; thus creating attentional deficit -- an inability to concentrate and focus.

Recovery requires rest, but sleep isn't always a viable option, especially in the middle of a trade show. Periodic episodes of effortless attention (interest-based attention -- such as fun and games) are the best ways to restore attentive capacity without taking up too much time and/or resources. Provide spaces and presentations that are just for fun