Lobby Design That Aligns With an Organization’s Mission

Take Away

Lobbies are our physical introductions to the organizations that own them.  They’re packed with clues about those owners—and researchers have found that we do a good job understanding an organization’s culture and priorities based on what we read in physical environments (Becker and Steele, 1995).  Becker and Steele also report that we think that messages sent via the physical environments are more likely to express an organization’s true culture, priorities, etc., than written mission and value statements.

While sometimes we only have the opportunity to a peruse lobby as we walk across it, often we need to spend time in them, and in those cases lobbies have more than fleeting opportunities to influence our thoughts and behaviors—and not just via the messages we “read” in them.  For example, lobbies in hotels help customers accomplish desired activities, such as registering and taking elevators to appropriate floors (Wu, Robson, and Hollis, 2013).  Lobbies are also places where we prepare psychologically for something to come, which might be a job interview or a visit with a dying family member or something else.  In many cases, lobbies provide opportunities to refresh, for example, via restaurants or spaces to gather informally. We may also work in a lobby, checking for electronic messages and missed phone calls while we cool our heels, for example. This variety of uses makes it a good idea to zone lobbies for different types of activities and to support individuals and groups of various sizes. 

Lobbies can be particularly important in healthcare facilities, since, as Berry and Bendapudi have described, perceptions of the quality of healthcare provided are heavily influenced by the design of the spaces in which it takes place (Berry and Bendapudi, 2003).

Many hospitals have learned from the hospitality industry how to create welcoming, utilitarian lobby spaces, often with dramatic elements such as tall atrium, which help people form a positive initial impression of the entire facility (Wu, Robson, and Hollis, 2013).

Goldman and her colleagues (2010) discuss the importance of amenities, such as lobbies designed like those in 5-star hotels and “magnificent views,” when consumers are making decisions about hospital services:  “In crowded hospital markets, especially in areas populated by well-insured patients, such amenities play an increasing role in the competition for market share.”  The authors suggest, using arguments similar to Berry and Bendapudi’s, that amenities may have such a significant influence on hospital choice because “data on clinical quality are complex, multidimensional, and noisy, and they have only recently become systematically available to consumers.”  Extending this logic, lobby design becomes important to the success of many service providers.

Other lobbies matter, too.  Lobbies in multi-family buildings are an important way for homeowners to express who they are individually and as a group, for example (Augustin, 2009).  The messages they send and the activities they support are just as crucial to user wellbeing as those from any workplace, healthcare facility, hotel, or other lobby.

This article will share what social and physical scientists have learned about lobby design.  The bulk of this material focuses on issues such as nonverbal communication and increasing the psychological wellbeing and physical comfort of people in lobbies.  It does not address topics such as designing for fire codes or the sturdiness of finish options.

Much of the research on creating spaces for people to wait, reported here, is also relevant to lobby design, in general.

Lobby Messages

Kimberly Elsbach and Beth Bechky outline the three primary functions of offices (2007). Lobby spaces serve the same purposes:  

  • Instrumental Functions: “Functions that improve the performance (e.g., efficiency, quality, creativity) and satisfaction (e.g., comfort, willingness to remain with the organization).” A work space can, for example, aid in individual or group problem solving or decision-making or facilitate group collaboration. Lobbies facilitate performing an assortment of tasks, from checking in for an appointment to participating remotely in a group meeting via a Wi-Fi link.
  • Symbolic Functions: “Functions that affect the cultures and identities of organizations, and identities and images of workers.” For example, workplaces can affirm individual and group distinctiveness, self-categorizations, or group status. Lobbies communicate organizational culture, opinions about clients, and similar information.
  • Aesthetic Functions: “Functions that affect the sensory experiences of workers, including both cognitive and emotional responses to design and décor." Workspaces and lobbies can both influence mood, for example.

Vilnai-Yavetz, Rafaeli, and Yaacov make similar points about the roles design plays (2005).

Erving Goffman (1959) famously elaborated the concept of front and back stage areas, with lobbies being the quintessential example of front stages. In front stage spaces, actions and messages are visible to all: employees and others affiliated in some way with the owning organization as well as members of the general public. Adult members of societies understand that front stage areas are an important source of information and that the messages conveyed there may differ from those sent back stage. Back stage areas aren’t seen by members of the public.  In most cases, discrepancies between front and back stages and the messages sent by each generate stress and unhappiness among the workers and others who are familiar with both—when different messages are sent by each area, front stages almost inevitably present more positive “stories” about supporting human wellbeing and similar issues than those transmitted from back stages.

Some of the messages found in a particular lobby are known only to members of particular user groups and others are familiar to people from the entire society who might potentially visit a space (Goffman, 1959).  This makes it important that designers ask users for feedback on lobby plans.  For example, designers may not realize that the upholstery fabric they’ve selected is the same color as the logo of a space owner’s major competitor or that an organization calls its employee award the “Golden Daffodil” prize, so artworks depicting daffodils should take center stage.  Similarly, people from another culture may not understand political associations to particular design choices, which might dramatically influence people’s thoughts and behaviors in a space.  For example, one of the political parties active in Ukraine has chosen the color orange to symbolize their efforts; a designer using this color in a lobby in Ukraine or in a city with many Ukrainian residents may send an unintended message. 

Research in the United States at professional practice firms (doctors and lawyers offices, etc.) has uncovered some consistencies in how lobby design elements are interpreted.  For example, organizations are seen as more considerate (i.e., as fostering easy and positive interactions among employees and others) when some of the places available to sit in a lobby are at right angles to each other (imagine chairs placed across a table corner from each other), flowers are present, and contemporary art is on display (Ornstein, 1992). 

Firms perceived as exerting less control over their employees’ lives were more likely to have floral arrangements, contemporary wall art, and luxurious carpeting in their lobbies than organizations who were perceived as controlling (Ornstein, 1992).

Having magazines in a lobby makes an organization seem more empathetic to employees than it seems when they’re not present and displaying trophies and other employee awards makes an organization seem to value its employees (Ornstein, 1986). 

Traditional furniture styles, such as early American, lead to perceptions of organizational strength and stability when used in lobbies, and when furniture has softer edges employers are seen as more flexible, warm, and concerned about employee comfort (Ornstein, 1989). 

When people can move freely through a lobby space, an employer is seen as warmer and friendlier, while more closed sorts of furniture arrangements call to mind formality and restrictions on employee activities (Ornstein, 1989). 

Firms are seen as structured and providing little autonomy for their workers when flags, logos, and restrictive signs are found in reception areas (Ornstein, 1986).

Rest rooms that will be accessed from lobby areas must be carefully designed and well-maintained (Moezzi and Goins, 2011).  As Moezzi and Goins report in the context of workplace design “a restroom is . . . a nexus for judging the thoughtfulness of architects and designers, maintenance personnel and the organizations that employee them, and colleagues.”

Color Associations

A significant body of research focuses on colors and the concepts associated with them in different cultures.  Theses studies should inform lobby design decisions.

Aslam’s research has comprehensively investigated associations to colors in particular cultures (2006). Representative color connotations are:

  • White: mourning/death (East Asia), happiness/purity (Australia, New Zealand, US)
  • Blue: corporate (US), cold/evil (East Asia), warmth/femininity (The Netherlands), coldness/masculinity (Sweden), death (Iran), purity (India), high quality/trustworthy/dependable (US, Japan, Korea, China)
  • Green: danger/disease (Malaysia), envy (Belgium, US), love/happiness/adventure/good taste (Japan), sincere/trustworthy/dependable (China), good taste/adventure (US)
  • Red: unlucky (Chad, Nigeria, Germany), lucky (China, Denmark, Argentina), bridal (China), masculine (UK, France), shows ambition/desire (India), love (China, Korea, Japan, US)
  • Yellow: warmth (US), infidelity (France), envy/jealousy (Germany, Russia), pleasant/happy/good taste/progressive/authority/royal/trustworthy (China)
  • Purple: love (China, South Korea, US), anger/envy (Mexico), sin/fear (Japan), expensive (China, South Korea, Japan)
  • Black: dullness/stupidity (India), grief/sorrow (Western cultures), fear (Japan), fear/anger/jealousy (Germany, Russia, Poland, Mexico, US), powerful/expensive (US, China, Japan, South Korea), dependable/trustworthy/high quality (China)

Aslam’s literature review revealed that “blue stands for solid, responsible, financial services; green for innovative, caring organizations; and yellow for young, bright, and exciting firms in the USA . . . red is the winning business colour in East Asia.”

Madden, Hewett, and Roth also investigated cultural associations to colors (2000).  They determined that “black on red signifies happiness to Chinese people, and therefore the color combination is commonly used for wedding invitations.  A combination of red over white represents celebration and signifies the life force to the Japanese.”  The team also found that in Japan, China, South Korea and the United States blue was associated “with high quality.” Black was linked to being expensive and powerful in all cultures from which data were collected (Austria, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, US).  In all of these countries, “blue, green, and white are strongly associated with “peaceful “gentle” and “calming. . . . Black and brown tend to have strongly held associations of “sad” and “stale” across cultures.”

Semin and Palma’s research links femininity with light colors and masculinity with dark ones, generally (2014).  Their finding is useful for people selecting palettes for spaces likely to be used by members of one sex more frequently.

Labrecque and Milne (2012) investigated the associations that Americans have to colors used in logos, but believe that their findings are relevant not only to the design of logos but also for “packaging, advertisements, storefronts, and websites that will create and reinforce a specific brand personality.”  Specifically, blue was linked to competence; black, pink, and purple to sophistication; and brown to ruggedness.  The researchers also uncovered a relationship between orange and perceived lack of sophistication.

Biophilic Design in Lobbies

In biophilicly designed lobbies, people feel secure and calm, as detailed below.  This makes it more likely that they’ll be able to prepare themselves psychologically for upcoming events and accomplish work while they’re in the lobby, for example.  For more information on biophilic design, read this article.

Biophilic design encourages the development of comfortable enclaves with prospect and refuge and we feel relaxed when we’re in these sorts of spaces (Heerwagen and Gregory, 2008). In a space with prospect and refuge, a person feels their location is protected and there’s a view out over a nearby area.  Often these areas have lower ceilings and are adjacent to larger, more brightly lit spaces.  An inglenook and a seating area under a dropped ceiling that’s not as brightly lit as the place it’s linked to both have prospect and refuge and so do most window seats.  Conversation alcoves created off lobbies, if they’re softly lit, do as well.  Even without the lowered ceilings, a space can seem to have prospect and refuge if people in it feel safe and it’s elevated a few steps.  In any lobby, there should be some places with prospect and refuge sized to support individuals and others large enough to accommodate groups.

Mahbub Rashid and his associates (2006) found that even in organizations that encourage their employees to work in public spaces, such as conference tables set up in lobby areas, employees seem to avoid “interacting with others in spaces and being seen with others from spaces with more visibility and accessibility.” The shunned gathering spaces lack prospect and refuge. 

Having our backs protected has been linked to human comfort—a human is just as unsettled sitting in the middle of a lobby as our ancestors were in an open field where danger could approach from any direction.  People feel secure when there are solid walls behind them or other things that would block an imagined evil-doer, such as a column, tall bushy plant, high and sturdy chair back, substantial piece of sculpture, you get the idea (Robson, 2008).

Waxman’s qualitative research identified aspects of the physical design of coffee houses that encourage “gathering behavior” and enhance customer experience; her work is relevant to lobby design (2006). The seats that are most popular in coffee shops are those that provide shelter to the customer. A full or partial-height wall might provide this shelter, for example. Customers flock to seats where their backs are against these walls. Corner seats are particularly desirable – these locations are sheltered on two sides. In addition “Seats near a window, protected on at least one side but with a view to much of the interior, particularly the entry and exit doors, were viewed as most desirable.” Furniture that can be moved to accommodate different activities and group sizes also encourages people to gather and remain in coffee shops (Waxman, 2006). 

Being able to control our experiences in a space helps us feel more secure there; so well designed lobbies should make this possible (O’Neill, 2010; Wang and Boubekri, 2011).  This means that in a lobby, it’s great if we can shift our chair slightly to change our view, perhaps to make better eye contact with someone we’re sitting near, or sit in a variety of postures because our chair has a foot rest, or choose a seat in an area where recorded music can be heard (or not). Wang and Boubekri (2011) learned that “A sense of control in a room appears to be more important [has a greater positive influence in mental performance] than outdoor view, if a subject cannot have both.” 

People are territorial; for more information on human territoriality, read this article.  Therefore, they’ll feel best in a lobby if they can stake out a space that clearly belongs to them.  In practical terms, that means one where they can place a drink or something else they clearly own on a table, etc., as a marker, where they have a space big enough to walk through between them and other seated people, and where they can customize their experience, for example, by rearranging the furniture (we have control of our experiences, as described above, in our own territory).  Groups who assemble in a lobby (perhaps because they are all planning on visiting the same person) need to be able to establish territories just as individuals do.  People entering public spaces survey them to see how readily territories can be established (Johns and Kivela, 2001). 

Other calming biophilic design elements that can be productively added to lobbies, as identified by Kellert (2012), include:

  • “Characteristic features of the natural environment such as sunlight, fresh air, plants, animals, water, soils, landscapes, natural colors, or natural materials such as wood and stone.”  Additional information on the repercussions of using plants in interior spaces is available here
  • Natural shapes and forms.  Dazkir and Read have extended Kellert’s work by having people look at images of rooms containing either primarily rectilinear or primarily curvilinear furniture (2012).  As the researchers reported, “the curvilinear settings elicited higher amounts of pleasant-unarousing emotions (such as feeling relaxed, peaceful, and calm) than the rectilinear settings.”
  • Natural patterns and processes. For example,  “designs that stimulate a variety of senses, simulate the qualities of organic growth, or reflect the processes of aging and the passage of time [think patina].”
  • Light and space: “Spatial and lighting features that evoke the feeling of being in a natural setting.  These include . . . a sense of spaciousness, and more subtle and indirect expressions such as sculptural qualities of light and space, and the integration of light, space, and mass.”
  • Links between the lobby to the physical and cultural environment in which it is located.  The lobby of an organization in the American Southwest should not look like a lobby in the American Northeast, for example. 

Heerwagen and Gregory also recommend that designers consider each type of sensory experience that someone in a place they’ve developed will have—what they’ll see, hear, smell, touch, and even taste.  This is a is particularly important biophilic design principle to apply in lobby spaces where many people may be present at any time (2008).  As Susan Cain reports, being around other people revs us up (2012).  The sound of gently moving water can be relaxing (Warmuth and Joseph, 2008) and also provides a neutral, white noise like background soundtrack.  Mobiles, streamers and other similar hanging objects moving gently in the current of the HVAC system add a visually relaxing element to a space (Heerwagen and Gregory, 2008).  Fish tanks add a similar sense of movement and can be used to delineate territories and create spaces with prospect and refuge.

Heerwagen recommends adding intriguing elements to biophilicly designed spaces and this can be particularly important in spaces such as lobbies where people may be quite stressed (2009). Many built environments are simpler than nature and unsatisfyingly easy to “know.” Curving walkways can increase intrigue, for example.

Seeing wood grain is a stress-reducing experience (Fell, 2010).  Fell found evidence that “wood provides stress-reducing effects similar to the well studied effect of exposure to nature in the field of environmental psychology.”  This finding is particularly important because wood can be used in any sort of space—for example ones without views of nature or ones that cannot support plants.  The wood included in Fell’s test environment was birch veneer with a clear finish.

Nature sounds can be good options for lobbies. Thoma and her team found that “the sound of rippling water . . . had a relaxation effect stronger than that of music”  (Thoma, La Marca, Bronniman, Finkel, Ehlert, and Nater, 2013).  The relaxing music whose effect was compared to that of the rippling water was “Miserere” by Allegri.


Using expected colors in a lobby is probably a good idea.  Labrecque and Milne researched colors selected by organizations as their brand’s signature hue (2013).  They examined “color norms within product categories and. . . . [found that] while color differentiation is helpful for some product categories, it can also be harmful for others. . . . adhering to color norms may be beneficial for product categories containing a dominant market leader, especially high-involvement categories.”  Examples of high-involvement products are “automobiles, computer software, retail. . . . pharmaceuticals. . . and banks.”

We are drawn to warm colors, as we would have been attracted to a primordial fire (Bellizzi, Crowley, and Hasty, 1983).  That makes these shades good choices for behind a reception desk that people entering a lobby should approach to check-in, etc.

Additional information on the implications of selecting particular colors is available here.  

Visual Patterns

Information on visual patterns, that should inform the selection of patterns used on rugs, upholstery, wall papers, etc., is available here.  

Lighting Options and Selection Implications

Information on the implications of selecting particular light levels and colors are available here.   This information should guide lobby design decisions.


Functional scenting, which is relevant to lobby design, is discussed here.  


Lobbies where people will be waiting alone should be relatively warm. Lee, Rotman, and Perkins (2014) found that “consumers perceived ambient temperature to be significantly lower when eating alone compared to eating with a partner.” This research has implications for not only the actual temperatures set in particular areas, but also other environmental decisions, such as colors selected for spaces where people are more or less likely to be alone.  Research has shown, for example, that people feel warmer in spaces that are painted warm colors and cooler in ones painted cool colors and Research Design Connections reported on this association here.

Additional information on the consequences of ambient temperature are available here.  This information can be applied when lobbies are in development.

Other “Feel-Good” Criteria

Additional research can be applied to make it more likely that people will have a positive experience in a lobby.

Automated concierges may be used in lobbies.  At some offices, workers are greeted by a concierge that directs them to desired services.  The same is true for people arriving at hotels and a growing number of other place types.  Should that concierge be technology-based or a live, in-the-flesh human?  Kattara and El-Said (2013) found via research at five-star hotels in Sharm El-Sheikh that “customers prefer to contact an employee rather than depending on a technology-based self-service in the majority of service encounters . . . customers’ preference for receiving a direct person contact is the most important reason for preferring human interaction encounters; customers’ preference for speed and easy service is the main reason for preferring technology-based self-service.”

Cranz, Lindsey, Morhayim, and Lin have learned that people have generally positive opinions about green architecture and “feel good about being affiliated with a green building,” so if a lobby has been designed in an environmentally responsible way, it’s important to use signage to let people know this (in press).  In addition, Leaman and Bordass reviewed occupant surveys from 177 buildings in the United Kingdom and learned that people working in green (defined here as environmentally responsible) buildings feel better about the image presented by their building and the way the building meets their needs than people who are working in conventional buildings (2007). They are also more tolerant of comfort-related problems (e.g., temperature, ventilation, noise, lighting) than workers in conventional buildings are.

Babin and Babin conducted research they generalized to all service environments: “If a service environment is utilitarian/functional in nature, a more typical design is preferable. However, if the orientation is more emotional in nature, an atypical design may be preferable”(2001). 

Research on plaza design provides insights relevant to the design of lobbies.  Research Design Connections reports on plaza design here.  

We’re less likely to get lost when we can see into other sections of a building from a central location, such as a lobby (Carlson, Holscher, Shipley, and Dalton, 2010). 

 Take Away

Lobbies serve user needs at a variety of cognitive and emotional levels and in a number of different ways, from having wi-fi access to effectively communicating desired/comforting/etc. concepts symbolically.  Indeed, one of the most important purposes of lobbies is to put the people in them in the right mood for whatever is to come once they leave that lobby.  It is generally important to make sure that lobby spaces are calming because we share them with others.  Being around other people is an energizing experience, as Cain reported (2012), and many lobby-type tasks, such as figuring out how to structure an upcoming conversation, are best executed when our minds are cool and collected.

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