How to Analyze Space Design

Introduction: How to Analyze Space Design

Spaces are crafted to become places. They are designed in order to add value to the purpose an area serves. To observe a space critically, is to expose the embedded discourses of social and cultural conditioning. Each element added or subtracted from a space shapes forms our perception of it.

Engagement with space is an active function, its specific interactions are arguably inexhaustive even though they can be controlled and directed by elements within it. A space is in constant flux with itself, both in its 'temporary' and 'permanent' fixtures.

In this instructable we will learn how to analyze spaces based on the way that they are designed. Through this process we will be also able to decipher the meanings of physical spaces and their relation to facilitating particular scenarios and human to human, as well as, human to environment interactions.


1. A specific location, setting, office, cafe, workshop, etc. to analyze.

Step 1: Choosing a Space

First thing's first! Choose a space to analyze.

Make sure to select a space where you have the ability to observe all angles of the setting. This can mean using multiple image spatial profiles found online, as I will be doing in this demonstration, or even being in a physical setting~perhaps the one in which you are seated at this very moment!

The space selected can be anywhere from grocery store aisles, to coffeeshops, or offices. If you so choose, you can follow along with the space chosen in this instructable and conduct your own analysis after.

For this analysis, I have chosen a Bluestone Lane Coffeeshop specifically located in the Financial District of San Francisco, CA. Attached are all of the images that their website has provided.

Disclaimer: In this instructable we will largely be focusing on the interior design of the space. This being noted, I want to state that external conditions, variables, and design are large contributing factors to increasing the 'feeling' a space hopes to achieve. Therefore, surrounding elements and 'umbrella' discourses do impact one's perception of a space, as well as, its deeper functional affordances.

Step 2: Understanding 'Goals' of the Space

In this step, Imagine that you stepped into this space. Write out all of the key words that come to mind. What does this space feel like to you? What emotions does it elicit? Most spaces have been crafted in order to make you feel and/or adjust your behaviour in a particular way. Therefore, the key terms that come to mind, reflect the overall 'goals' that this space hopes to achieve.

Looking at this coffeeshop, here are the following key terms that come to my mind:

- Cozy, Warm, Homey

- Welcoming, Friendly, Neighbourhood

- Relaxed yet Structured

- Comfortable yet Reserved

- Tropical yet Urban/ Industrial

- Gathering, Collaborative, Social

- Charming, Approachable setting

- Fresh, Lively

- Clean

- Natural

This exercise allows us to deduct the meanings that the space expects to cultivate. The following steps will us to understand how we get these impressions from the space that we are looking at.

Step 3: Looking at Partitions

Next let's look at partitions.

Since spaces are three-dimensional, there is significance in the way that an area is organized and distributed. There are four parts to analyzing partitions:

a. Segregation

b. Separation (most often seen as a continuum)

c. Permeability

d. Permanence and Dynamism

Questions to Ask:

1. Are there any parts of the spaces who's functions do not interact at all? The spaces that do not interact would be considered segregated, forming separate ecosystems linked together by few factors.

2. Who are the groups of people involved in the space with separate/complimentary purpose (i.e. customer and barista)? How does the space separate and/or connect the two?

3. Who are the groups of people involved in the space with similar purpose (i.e. customer and customer)? How does the space separate and/or connect the two?

4. How connected is the space to what is external: surroundings or the outdoors? How much of the outside allowed to come in? The more the external is allowed to come indoors, i.e. views, natural lighting, etc. the more transparent, open, airy, and free the space can feel.

5. Are the features in the setting physically moveable? Are they set in place? Tip: This can often be seen in the seating situation. Are tables, chairs and other seating moveable? To what degree? This provides insight into the types of interactions the space hopes to facilitate.

In this case...

The greatest degree of separation in this space lies between the barista and the customer. The two areas of operation are separated by a counter whose height and width make it a space of very limited engagement. This demonstrates that the main interaction that needs the most attention is ultimately not the one with the barista and the customer. The height of the counter does not allow the individual on the other side to fully read the other's body language. It only allows for key, quick communication to be conducted. Further up lies another partition, a planter with tall trees, obscuring the coffee bar from view of the seating area. The majority of seating space is overall connected, as there is a long bench running along the span of two adjacent walls, joining in one of the shop's corners. This connection appears to be fragmented by the 'white space' or empty space between the tables of varied shapes, framing the conceptual illusion of more intimate spaces within the whole. The connotations behind the long bench seating can be derived from the current popular narrative of the 'network'.

Key terms such as 'collaboration' have always historically been attached to coffeeshops. However, since the definition of the term itself has been evolving the physical representation has gone from group circular tables surrounded by individual chairs, to shared bench seating spaces. It almost forces people to acknowledge others and interact with them at even the most minute levels. There becomes an option between individuality or plurality, as the other side of the table is lined with chairs. Which brings about another discourse, the increased availability of choice and options, which can be related to the element of permanence and dynamism.

Looking back at the key terms from the first exercise, specifically: "tropical yet urban/industrial", "comfortable yet reserved", and "relaxed yet structured, demonstrates that the outcomes of the space reflect several dualities. The dualities, in terms of partitions, indicate a form of functional dynamism. This can be seen through the flexibility of seating arrangements. The tables and chairs are fairly mobile but at the same time, there are some permanent fixtures, such as the bench that allow for limited movement and arrangement flexibility. Main features of the space are permanent, such as the coffee bar itself. The duality also plays upon the concept of choice, the individual can almost choose the setting they are in by the aesthetic, food, location, and seating choices that they make. This is possible because the space is made up of smaller pockets of designed areas. Duality is a recurring theme in this space, it will come up several times throughout this analysis because it is reflected by several elements that we will be discussing.

In terms of permeability, a lot of the outside activity is brought indoors through the massive glass windows on two significant walls spanning the majority of the length and width of the coffeeshop. Large windows are often connoted with freshness and freedom, due to all of the natural lighting let into the space. It proposes, literally, a 'lighter' and brighter atmosphere, giving it the sense of a warm, welcoming environment. Glass walls and windows present the space as more vulnerable, open, and literally transparent!

This gives us an idea about what the brand values: welcoming environment, transparency, friendliness, warmth, and freedom. The customer seating area is fairly open, there aren't any heavy walls or barriers separating groups of people. This contributes to the light, free effect, as walled partitions would indicate more grounded intimate settings. The coffeeshop is broken up mainly by white space, natural, translucent and penetrable barriers such as the plants. The planters make up any zones where more opaque barriers are needed to establish comfort. The counter-space and the activity behind it is fairly visible, establishing another point of transparency and openness.

Step 4: Analyzing Interactional Affordances

In this step we will be analyzing interactional affordances. Interactional affordances are concerned with designed spaces and how they have the ability to shape movement. This means facilitating or restraining certain type of engagements and interaction between people.

There are three components to analyzing interactional affordances:

a. Areas

b. Focal Points

c. Channels

Questions to Ask:

1. Where are the most significant interactions taking place in the space between people?

2. What are some of the spatial conventions that are being upheld? How does this direct the people in the space? How does the design of the space allow for these conventions to exist? (i.e. lines + queue formations, individual seating vs. group seating, etc.)

3. If it is a commercial space, what are the key areas for monetizing and marketing? How are they made visible/approachable? How does the space accommodate for this interaction? (counter, display cases, etc.)

4. What types of interactions are encouraged? What is the estimated length of each interaction? How is this indicated by the space? Tip: Can be analyzed through seating arrangement, furniture, and barriers or lack thereof.

One of the ways to see how much, what type, and for how long each interaction is encouraged can be reflected by how much body language is accessible and encouraged by the setting. For example, in a queue, all of the individuals waiting to order are expected to face the front (directed towards the counter), in single file. If an online order is made, pick-up is often in a separate line. Facing the front, limited contact can be made with other people standing in the queue. The individual faces another's back, the face, one of the key points of body language is not visible. Therefore, it can be understood that conversation, in that particular setting, is not necessarily ideal unless one goes out of their way. The majority of the space is organized as group seating, there aren't any individual nooks, ushering people to connect with others.

In this commercial space, there are two of the key focal areas for the company: 1. "business points" or places of product-capital exchange, and 2. "branding points" or places for selling the brand + selling value to the consumer. The space is used to sell the goods and services, but also reinforced through design, to sell the brand and the concept of selling a lifestyle. For the consumer there are also two key focal areas. The first is the "business points", the same as the above, where product and capital is exchanged. The second is the "point of value added", or the ability to use the space as a place of gathering and to resonate with the values the brand identifies with.

The business point in this coffeeshop is located at the counter, fresh products are ordered and paid for there. Additional products are also placed in the area, such as their branded ground coffee selection. This section of the space receives the most traffic, as it is a required stop for customers. This means that it has to be designed to keep order, keep traffic flowing, and out of the way of seated customers. The narrow passage in front of the counter creates an "assembly line effect", channeling people ordering goods while maintaining productivity. The counter can get busy, noisy, and distracting therefore, a separation from the seating area, in this case a planter with tall trees, is utilized. This blanketing of the "hustle and bustle" allows the space to cultivate its laid-back, casual vibe--in accordance with its perceived branding.

The second focal point is the branding point for the company and the point of value for the customer. In this case, in terms of physical space, it is located in the seating area. The design of the space contributes to the image of the brand. The overall image, 'friendly', 'neighbourhood', 'comfortable', 'lively', 'haven' are reinforced. These ideas are all things that the customers hope to resonate with as they interact with the space. The seating space is also created to add value to the customer's consumption experience. The seating allows us to understand how long the individual is expected to stay. Analyzing materials and textures, as we will look at next, can tell us a lot about this piece.

Step 5: Analyzing Materials and Textures

Materials and textures used in a space often appeal to the five senses. Meanings and connotations upheld by materials and textures are decoded through experiential cognizance. One recognizes that certain textures, patterns, and symbols are paired with a set of characteristic traits. Adhering to the senses of sight and touch, for example, Douglas fir wood wall panelling in a space would be reminiscent of a log cabin evoking the sense of 'nostalgia', 'family', and 'warmth'.

When analyzing materials and textures, we can look at six different values:

a. Rigidity

b. Relief

c. Naturalness

d. Liquidity

e. Viscosity

Questions to Ask:

1. What textures are used? What do they remind me of? What emotions are they attached to/ connoted with? (i.e. rough wood textures = nature connection, if the woods are light = 'lighthearted, 'openness', 'friendly', 'clean', 'airy'.

2. What flora are used to enhance the space? What shapes do the plants make? Tall and slender = 'organized', 'neat', 'minimalist', 'reserved'. Untrimmed, large, flowing = 'relaxed', 'unwind', 'comfortable'. Medium large but organized leaf patterns = 'welcoming', 'balanced'.

3. What parts of the space use natural materials? What aspects of the space use synthetic materials? Natural materials give a more grounded, 'earthy' feeling. Synthetic materials take on a more visibly manufactured look, being connoted with more professional, cold, modern chic settings.

4. Is there a heavy use of crisp lines? Or are the lines in the space more curved and flowing? Or both?

5. How giving are the fabrics and textiles used in the space? Are they rigid? Made of natural materials or synthetic? Soft? Malleable?

In this space...

The unapologetic exposure of wooden beams on the ceiling give the space an industrial vibe. This keeps the space feeling raw reflecting the concept of 'creativity', 'transparency', and having an unassuming connotation to "progress"--perhaps by appearing to be a "work in progress".

The wicker-effect on the chairs propose the feeling of naturalness, while the metal framing brings it back to a modern industrial feel. It makes the space grounded in its connection to nature, rekindle the sense of nostalgia of a memorable summer outdoors. The materials used in this chair connote the feeling of home, summer seasons, the beach, a getaway- perhaps adding to an understanding of freedom. It does not stray too far away from the city because the metals bring it right back. The light beige of the material match the wood in rest of the room's floor, complementing it, but the material itself creating its own vibe.

The walls and the lighting go full out industrial with exposed panelling and minor electrical (exposed wall sockets). The industrial additions give it a warehouse feel, almost worn-in. Warehouses and garages have become a popular narrative being the birthplace of entrepreneurial schemes, inventions, and ideas. This can propose the connotation of stimulating 'creativity'. The drop-down lighting fixtures used in the space use metals with light sources revealed. This has the potential to connote another level of 'transparency' and 'openness'.

Plants are used to make this space appear softer balancing out the rough industrial elements. The choice of plants are specific, tall and structured some with organized leaf patterns. This creates a feeling of naturalness but keeping the space refined and uncluttered. The fabrics and textiles within the space appear to be of a canvas or canvas blend material, renewing the notion of 'the natural', 'the beach', 'summer'. The fabric is structured but malleable. The leaf prints used on the pillows really push the 'natural' concept being reinforcing the actual plants.The crisp lines and synthetic materials can be seen mainly in the pure white counter space.

Step 6: Analyzing Colour

Finally, we are going to look at colour. First looking at it in individual parts and then as an overall composition.

To begin, extract the base colours from the complementary middle colours (the colours that act as the neutralizers), and the accents. What are the foundational colours present in the space? Observe. Are the base colours warm colours, warm-cool colours, cool-warm colours, or cool colours? The base colours can be located most prominently in the walls, counters and use of woods and/or metals.These colours can tell us about what the underlying intent of the space actually is, it sets the tone for the room, even without adding any furniture. Is this space meant to be intimate and moody, using deep reds, or is it more sterile and cold, using crisp whites?

Questions to Ask:
1. Are the base colours of the space warm or cold?

2. Are the layered colours cool or warm?

3. Do dark or light tones have more prominence?

4. How do the colours appear together in a composition? Are they harmonious?

The colours chosen in this particular palate reflect two basic themes: industrial and beach vibes.The base colours in this space are of cool-warm tones. Cool whites and greys are used as the foundational tones for the 'shell' of the room.The cool colours in this space: whites and greys do not stray too far away from the more professional, structured vibe, mirroring its external environment being located in a financial district.

The middle colours are used as complementary to the base colours, they often fill in the "middle" part of the colour palate, excluding accents. The 'layered' colours of in this space (middle colours and accents) are warmer, natural tones, consisting of cream-whites, natural light wood colours, and beige. The layered warm hues make the space appear 'friendly', 'welcoming', and 'homey'. The accent colours: light greys, greens in the plants, and seafoam in the chairs add to creating vibrancy in space. This builds upon the two themes.

In composition the overall colour palate reflects a heavy use of natural colours: the greens, beiges, creams, greys work harmoniously with each other providing an earthy environment. The grey in the space generates a dual meaning, the first relating to nature, metaphoric of rocks, and the second reflective of a modern city in all of its concrete glory.

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