Office with a View: a Dim View of That Dream
You think that working in an office or other space with a great view is a not only a good idea, but also a great idea? Of course you do. But, is it really?
To put the question more precisely, when could it ever be a bad idea?
Paradise, or Paralyzed Eyes?
The photo here shows the view from a very temporary recent workspace I occupied—a cheap rented beach bungalow on “Big La Laguna Bay” beach, in Mindoro, Philippines that doubled as my “office” while I was there on a short visit. Great view, right?
Then why did I keep my curtains closed (as shown here) while I’m working, e.g., on this article? It’s not for the privacy, since it’s a very quiet resort at this time of the year—mostly a lot of beached catamarans, as the photo suggests (with even fewer people directly in front of me, because of the many large rocks in the water). Nor is it a matter of heat. My suite was very well air-conditioned and also had a strong fan.
The fact of the matter is that I also keep my curtains closed even when I’m home, irrespective of the view. One of the main reasons for my doing so is also one of the main reasons for not utilizing whatever view that comes with a workspace: the benefits and comfort of dim light—a claim supported by some recent research into the effects of dim light on creativity.
Other reasons include privacy, even an illusory sense of privacy when others are sharing the space. As an article titled “The Benefits of Low-Level Lighting” posted at the-programmers-stone.com explains it, a work space illuminated with low-level lighting “feels more private, and that’s what matters for reducing stress and anxiety and so enabling juxtapositional thinking.There’s also an effect similar to being in a library. People respect the sense of quiet and cosiness. They keep their voices down, and tend to go elsewhere to use their phones.”
The Bright Side of Dim Light
Creativity and privacy aside, what could possibly be good reasons for preferring dim at work? Here’s my list:
Optimal pupil dilation: It stands to reason that, if the GOV is brighter than the work area, it will induce pupil constriction and reduce the amount of light impinging on the job surface-focused retina.
Visual focal point: Low-level lighting—precluded by the average GOV (great office view)—combined with independent, highly localized, task-directed and brighter illumination allows for a visual focus for task performance, whether on a computer, a bench, a drawing board or at a desk.
Elimination of competing and distracting visual stimuli: Extrapolating from my own experience and the research, I suggest that, if your own job involves visualization, reducing any competing or distracting visual stimulation may facilitate your tasks. Since a lot of “creative” efforts involve visualizing purely imaginary or at least otherwise unseen things, dimming all other visual inputs to lower levels may enhance focus for others. A GOV precludes doing that.
Double dimming-induced sharp focus: I set my computer on high-contrast white font on black background; the reverse of the conventional display, the glare of which I find blinding. China Daily, Hong Kong, where I worked as editor and writer, made a comparable setting of yellow on black mandatory for all editorial and writing staff. I’ve taken that an additional step and expand the darker background to include the room itself, with low-level lighting, even if not “set” to pitch blackness.
For me this secondary high-contrast effect makes font even more visible, while tuning out any background visual distractions. Interestingly, the optimal background room illumination level for me is dim, not dark, perhaps because, with the latter, the overall stimulus level falls below what sustains attention or because of an unpleasant psychological isolation-tank effect that goes too far beyond privacy.
If your own work is computer based, try experimenting with such double dimming—perhaps choosing a darker color setting for your computer screen background. Again, an office with a great view does not allow this.
If the visible field of vision does not contain any essential triggers for task completion, e.g., an empty room that an interior designer should use as a “drawing board” to outfit, coordinate and decorate, the field’s data are likely to be at best irrelevant and at worst distracting. In this instance, too, hitting the dimmer switch makes sense. The implication for the GOV is that it can make a positive contribution to work, if it provides visual stimulation that can catalyze the task by
Even though some research suggests that despite a “freedom from constraint” effect, complex analysis is not facilitated, and may be impeded, by dim light, my personal experience suggests the contrary.
Despite my not having performed any comparative analysis, e.g., writing on a beach or a park bench vs. writing in a dim room, it seems clear to me that the sheer visual comfort and freedom from distraction afforded by dim light contributes to the kind of analytical focus required to get my job done.
My personal experiment in which I opened the curtains of my bungalow doorway took only as long as it took the glare of the sky and sand to dispel any idea that I would think more clearly and critically with both my eyes and the curtains open to it.
Blue-eye crutch: My Asian friends are always astonished by how dark I and other Westerners like our living and work spaces to be. We’ve speculated on the possibility that it may have some connection with lower levels of melanin in blue eyes—although how that could affect the retina was unclear, unless, as we speculated, more light penetrates the iris and makes its way to the retina.
That, apparently, is indeed the case: Speaking of the iris and photosensitivity, Dr. Jack Sipperley, Arizona board-certified ophthalmologist, commenting at healthtap.com, says,“Its function depends on blocking all light that doesn’t enter the hole. All iris pigments leak a little light, called ‘straylight’, causing glare and mildly decreasing visual acuity. Blue pigment happens to leak the most light. Of more consequence is blue-eyed individual’s skin photosensitivity,”
This suggests that a GOV may be more than a bane than a boon for blue-eyed people (like myself) and more of a plus for office workers in New Delhi, Tokyo, Taipei or Manila, where almost everyone will be brown-eyed. It also invites research into whether chronically sun-starved, sun-worshiping blue-eyed Scandinavians will crave a bright GOV in preference to low-level accommodation of their photosensitive eyes more than their brown-eyed sun-worshiping coworkers.
So, supervisors take note: Before yanking the office curtains wide open, informally scan and tally the irises of your staff and decide whether to leave the curtains closed, if the majority of your staff or your own bosses are blue-eyed…
…unless your great workspace view is from aboard an orbiting space station.