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M Moser’s Steve Gale looks at our primitive brain

Last month Steve looked at the need for a workplace to appeal to the higher needs and aspirations of its occupants, as well as merely functioning at a practical level. How do we convey this meaning and how do occupants perceive it?


3 min read

Image of brain

We can borrow the two systems described so well by Daniel Kahneman in his great book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. System 1 is the instant emotional mechanism driven by instinct and prior learning, and system 2 is the deliberation and logic that relies on the intellectual horsepower of our newly evolved frontal cortex. The unavoidable power of system 1 thinking lies not only in its speed of reaction, but in its permanent readiness. It is always on and buried deep in the primitive brain characterised by the amygdala – you can’t turn it off.

This two-system model is a bit like the more familiar ideas of left and right brain functions; that logic and intuition are different and even separate processes. It also throws some light on the thousands of decisions and processes involved in the design of a workplace. Although they are all stitched together in the end, we can fairly easily divide them into two parts, the rational and intuitive, which contribute in different ways to a project.

It turns out we are sensitive to corporate hypocrisy – and we don’t like it.

The logical and technical areas of design can be described in words and numbers, and their output measured and objectively assessed, whereas the overall effect and ambience cannot. Square metres, degrees Celsius, decibels and litres per second are easily specified, but what feels right or wrong is indefinable and subjective.

Going back to Kahneman’s terminology and how it might apply to workplace design, I hope he would forgive me for summarising that the intuitive system 1 has the upper hand in the creative integration of all the bits needed to deliver the big picture, and system 2 is more engaged in answering the specific requirements of space and engineering input.

If this is roughly what goes into a design, then it is not too much of a stretch to say that the users engage the same processes to make sense of it. System 1 kicks in instantly to say if they like or don’t like a place, and their system 2 allows them to describe specific issues, such as a meeting room being too small or the temperature too high.


We know which clothes feel right, and where we like to holiday – but try to describe why, and it’s not so easy.

Each part of a working environment should function properly (system 2), but I want to defend the importance of the overall aesthetic effect of a workplace (system 1). Its expression carries huge force, and its subtle messages carry powerful and inescapable meaning to the users in the business. Although it will always be difficult to pin down in words, it can, if done well, display what the occupying business represents for all to see.

If a designer can demonstrate people’s values in their workplace, it will be instantly, intuitively understood, and dissonance will be read just as quickly. In our personal lives we all automatically express what we stand for. We know which clothes feel right, and where we like to holiday – but try to describe why, and it’s not so easy.

The workplace must be the same. Why would it be an exception? It should be a reflection of the collective values of the business and, if it is wide of the mark, people will, without thinking about it, instantly feel uncomfortable. The workplace is only one piece that bears employee satisfaction, along with rewards, colleagues or job quality, but this one is squarely in our domain.

A London-based psychologist, Luke Treglown, tells a story from his research on workplace disenchantment, now published in his book. He found that the single biggest correlation between why people leave their employment was the gap between espoused corporate values and those being actually practiced. Employees easily detect a lack of congruence between the two. It turns out we are sensitive to corporate hypocrisy – and we don’t like it.

I would suggest the same applies to the workplace itself. If it does not look and feel like an appropriate home for our business, we smell a rat.

This subtle fit between a set of values and the physical workplace is clearly visible to workers, visitors and customers. We use the intuitive part of our brain to both create and judge it. Although it is not an easy thing to define in a brief, it really matters, especially when it fails.

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