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A man at his workspace next to a big window, with natural light streaming in.

Plenty of natural and artificial light help avoid SAD.

Confronting the winter blues

designing space with light in mind

By Debbie Boyles

Published on February 4, 2005

If dealing with the cold and snow of a Minnesota winter wasn't enough, dwellers in northern climes also have to contend with decreased daylight during the winter months and its accompanying psychological effects. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)--a malady that causes winter depression--is believed to be caused by decreased exposure to the sun and resulting changes to brain chemistry and circadian rhythms. Symptoms include depression of varying severity, a craving for sweet or starchy food, lack of energy, social withdrawal, and oversleeping. People with severe SAD should seek professional help, but for most the treatment is simple--more light, especially daylight.

The College of Human Ecology's (CHE) interior design students learn about light because it affects wellbeing in so many ways. "Light is probably the most important thing about a space because it affects all other design elements and how people feel in the space," says associate professor Dee Ginthner, who teaches the college's lighting design course. "Interior designers need to understand the needs of people and design accordingly, which is why SAD is an important topic [for design students to know about] in this part of the country."

Those being treated for severe SAD will likely sit in front of a special box that delivers intense light therapy for a prescribed period of time each day. For those facing less debilitating forms of SAD, adding more light to their indoor environments can reduce symptoms. How to do this depends upon the individual. "Interior designers would want to know what the individual does, how they live, and where they spend their time. Then they design accordingly," says Ginthner.

To learn more about how to design for SAD sufferers, students can consult InformeDesign--the first searchable database of design and human behavior research. The database helps interpret research findings in a way that makes them useful to design practitioners. "InformeDesign is changing the way design is solutions should be based on research, rather than trends or what has been done before," says Caren Martin, InformeDesign director.

A search of InformeDesign resulted in eight summaries of SAD research in journals including the American Journal of Psychiatry, Human Factors, Environment and Behavior, and others. Each summary identifies practical design criteria suggested by the research.

Based on Ginthner's knowledge and the research-based data from InformeDesign, there are several things people can do with lighting to help combat SAD and ward off the effects of low winter light:

For more information on SAD, see Health Talk & You.

For more information on InformeDesign, see the InformeDesign Web site.

For further reading, Winter Blues by Norman Edward Rosenthal.

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