Natural aesthetics for health and happiness in brands and digital design

Introduction: Natural aesthetics in brands and technology — a research project

How we sense our surroundings determines how we feel about ourselves. Surrounded by nature, we are more prone to feel relaxed, inspired, and grounded in the moment. Even surroundings that just convey a sort of “naturalness”, by employing principles found in nature, are good for us. Not only do we feel more connected to our lives in such surroundings — research indicates that it positively alters mood, reduces stress, improves concentration, and restores attentional capacity. Exposure to natural forms is also correlated to self-perceived health, and studies even propose better recovery from surgery.

Part I—Using principles of natural light to strengthen the connection with our surrounding nature

In nature, the conditions of light and shadow are in constant flux. As an expression of time and motion, the liveliness of natural light evokes feelings of both drama and calm. Experiencing how nature emits, absorbs, and reflects light, has a profound effect on our biology. But, unlike other physical objects, a glowing screen does practically not reflect natural light at all–it is very much existing in isolation from our physical and natural world.

1.1. Changing light and shadow in correlation to nature’s cycles

By experiencing the shifts of light and shadow as we orbit the sun, the human body is regulating its body temperature, heart rate, and balance of serotonin and melatonin. The rhythmic variation in natural light guides our circadian system, and our psychological and physiological responses to light are related to sleep quality, depression, mood, alertness, and other health-related conditions.

Reflecting color changes throughout the day can aid people’s circadian rhythm and sense of physical presence.
Reflecting changes throughout the season could strengthen people’s sense of season and connection to nature.
Dynamic use of light and shadow can emphasize time and physical position.
The appearance of digital materials can change based on the change of light source.

1.2. Reacting to ambient light

By using camera and other sensors to scan environmental light, it is possible to adjust the screen to make it appear as if the screen reflects light instead of emitting it. Because the colors on the screen look more natural, this establishes a connection between digital space and its surroundings. Meaning, that it establishes a connection between the digital space and its surrounding physical space — but not necessarily nature.

Detecting basic ambient light to make screen brightness and color temperature fit its surroundings.
Detecting complex ambient light to render digital materials as if they were part of the physical environment.

1.3. Simulating natural dynamics of light and shadow

Nature is always unevenly lit, with light and shadow expressing its character and atmosphere, its volumes and objects. From bathing in sunlight and sharp shadows to the next second walking into soft flickering light, and suddenly, hiding in the shadows; In nature, we are constantly experiencing changing intensities, directions, and occurrences of light and shadow. These naturally variable light conditions, where you experience a complex balance of diffuse and direct light, connect us with space and matter. It breathes life into our surroundings, creates and a sense of presence, intimacy, and drama.

Employing non-uniform light conditions in a digital space.

1.4. Reducing artificial light and flicker

Natural light and artificial light might look similar to the naked eye, but they are very different both in their spectral shapes and in how they affect our biology. Another way that artificial light is different from natural light, is what we call light flicker. Light flicker refers to the refresh rate of the screen (measured in Hz) and can be described as the rapidness of a screen pulsating or flashing.

Using overall darker designs could reduce screen-caused headaches and other screen-related health concerns.

2. Employing images of nature to mirror the calming qualities of the grown environment

It is well known that spending time in nature is good for our mental and physical wellbeing. What is lesser known, is that even looking indirectly at nature — through an analog or digital simulation of it — could lower our stress levels and build resilience.

2.1. A view of nature through photos, paintings, and drawings

Indirect representations of nature can never be as effective as a direct human-nature interaction. Still, a low-cost way of infusing sterile and uninviting hospitals with healing qualities is swapping abstract art with naturalistic paintings or photos of nature. Being surrounded by art that represents and reflects nature can reduce the need for pain medication and decrease the length of hospital stays.

Even just a few elements of nature in a photo or illustration can feel calming.
Moving image with natural non-rhythmic stimuli. (Disclaimer: large file size, heavy compression)
Photo changing according to time (Photo by Taylor Gray • Disclaimer: large file size, heavy compression)

2.2. Spatial view of nature

A key necessity of feeling engaged in our lives is the ability to take an active part in our surroundings. Although looking at a beautiful photo of nature sure is nice, we are merely spectators of a beautiful scene — a scene detached from our physical presence. Physically being in that same nature is engaging our senses on a completely different level. By embedding physical principles, we can create a more immersive representation of nature in digital landscapes.

Through scroll behavior, head movement, or device tilting, we can enable a person to somewhat move within a photograph. (Disclaimer: large file size, heavy compression)
Six minutes of nature exposure spent using a VR headset has been found to create similar effects as the same amount of time spent in the actual outdoors.

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