Part I: What is holistic design?

Updated: Oct 1, 2018

Holistic Design.


The term holistic design has come up a lot recently - especially at Barbara Vail Design. Since it is a buzzword and we all may understand a variation of the term, I wanted to explain what it means to me and how it is important in my design process. "Holistic" is tacked on to everything lately to make us feel like something is good for us - and good is not far enough for me.


By definition, holistic is “characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.” Being holistic in the design world has its own definition. I love how this article explains the difficulties from a UX perspective, though the author attempts a broad approach.


To me holistic design takes the the client’s life into account as a whole when I design a plan for them. Are they going through something personally that creates a need for a calming space? Do they work nights and need a comforting space to sleep during the day? Are they going through a transition and need their home to encapsulate a special meaning? Come back for part II of this post next week when I will discuss more of the transitions aspect and how that relates to design.


My background in wellness and nutrition cultivated a need to pay attention to the mental, emotional and social factors in addition to the aesthetic needs of a space. I have been thinking about writing this post for awhile and then a couple weeks ago I read this article that really resonated with me. It discusses the design connection to the mind and body at London’s Design Biennale.


"Emotional States is the theme selected by organizers of this year’s London Design Biennale, which takes over Somerset House on Sept. 4. During the Biennale, 40 pavilions representing nations, territories and cities will explore the relationship among design, social needs and our emotional responses."


One of the ideas that really resonated with me in this article was that the role of a designer isn’t to ask their clients what they want, but to help them discover their desires from within themselves. The self discovery I nurture in my clients is one of the most rewarding parts of the interior design process - when a client falls in love with a piece they never knew they had space in their heart for.



“It’s not a matter of saying to people ‘what do you want?’ because often they won’t know what’s possible,” he said. “That is something the designer must understand in the conversation — that’s where great creativity comes.”


Designing for happiness is another holistic theme I think about often and the article also delves into what that means: "To many, it’s no longer about having the most expensive piece, but rather if what they are purchasing is contributing to a greater good."


“The whole well-being movement has made us more aware that what truly makes us happiest is to have good relationships, to be healthy and to be mindful.”


While not every single design of mine may go as deep as igniting a social and mental health commentary, my designs do illicit joy and that the most gratifying part of what I do. I design because it uplifts the spirit of those I work with; it is why I do what I do. This article goes into detail on how I accomplished my version of "holistic design" in one of my most treasured projects.


I recently picked up this book, How Art Can Make You Happy, at The Met and though it is small in size, it goes into depth about how art transforms our brain chemicals (and if you are interested in even further research, there is a great article from the Association of Psychological Science that delves into our homes and emotional regulation.)



Every fiber of your being - your senses, your intellect, your emotions, even your physical corpus - responds to works of art.


And to close with this beautiful quote from novelist George Eliot,


"If empathy is one of the greatest sources of deep human happiness, art is a wellspring of empathy.”

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