Principles of Design #45 – Cathedral Effect

The Cathedral effect describes the influence of the perceived height of a ceiling and human thinking, and is (at least in part) a priming effect. High ceilings are known to encourage abstract thinking (creativity) and low ceilings encourage concrete thinking (focus on detail). Most people prefer high ceilings to low ceilings, and the Cathedral effect demonstrates that the environment can impact our approach to problem solving (either enhancing or undermining ability, depending on the nature of the problem to be solved)

When ceiling height is conspicuously low or high it can promote different kinds of thinking, with higher ceilings promote abstract thinking and creativity and lower ceilings promoting concrete and detail-oriented thinking. The effect is only observed if ceiling height is noticed, and when it is people typically self-report feeling “freer” in higher ceiling environments and “confined” in lower ceiling environments (the source of the priming effect). For example, in word tasks such as anagrams, tests show that problem solving ability is related to the congruency of the words involved (i.e., you can find anagrams for the word ‘liberation’ more easily and quickly in a high ceiling room, and more slowly in a low ceiling room).

More practically, other experiments have shown that in evaluating a new product, we tend to focus on more general product characteristics in a higher ceiling room and more on specific features in a lower ceiling room. Similarly, visual perspective in pictures or images can be influenced, so that worm’s-eye views evoke similar effects to high ceilings, and bird’s-eye views evoke similar effects to low ceilings. These effects seem to be primarily based on mental ‘priming’ (read more here), as certain concepts related to ‘low’ or ‘high’ are brought forward in memory, giving more emphasis to related ideas such as ‘freedom’ (high) and ‘confined’ (low).

These are important effects to consider in the design of work and retail environments. For out-of-the-box thinking (research and development), large rooms with high ceilings will encourage creative thinking. For tasks that required detail-oriented thinking (surgical unit), smaller rooms with lower ceilings will encourage greater focus on detail. In retail, higher ceilings will be effective for consumer choices which require imagination (e.g., home improvements) and lower ceilings for more task-oriented shopping (e.g., convenience store). Higher ceilings will also encourage consumers to linger longer (e.g., casino that has the best best slot games) whereas lower ceilings will discourage loitering (e.g., fast food restaurant).

That’s why cathedrals and gardens inspired Monet!


Principles of Design, Revised and Updated by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler (2010)

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