Where do you belong? Space and identity

6 min read

This is a loaded question which has been debated in many social, psychological and design fora…

The issue of identity is usually linked directly to architectural and interior design of a space. Graphic design, branding and space may seemingly be unrelated to our identity initially; however, these are essential aspects of the design process and the final outcome.

In understanding how this all ties in together, let us momentarily consider loneliness. Most buildings have loneliness built into them, only because social identity is largely side-lined from the design process. It is a fact that loneliness is plaguing our societies and is a primary cause of mental distress. This could also apply to a business, a school or your own home! Here we argue that design process is key to address polarisation and disconnectedness. Instead, it could foster individual and collective identity through space.

Hence, the relationship between place identity, cultural values and emotions is not superficial. “Place identity” should be taken more seriously within the field of design, especially as it has a positive impact on our sense of belonging. This has been proven to facilitate a creative output with economic benefits in businesses that follow this method.

“Place identity” is a core concept which proposes that identities form in relation to environments. It is a sub-structure of a person’s self-identity and consists of knowledge and feelings developed through everyday experiences of physical spaces.

We will be considering this connection in both the local and global context of various design disciplines – the individual space vs. the city – with respect to the scale of the place.

Individual space

By this here we mean your home, your office, your favourite restaurant, etc… Yes, even your home is a brand… an individual expression of what makes you, you!

“An inclusively designed built environment means planning, designing, building and managing places that work better for everybody – whether that place is a school, office, park, street, care home, bus route or train station.” CABE/Design Council Inclusive Design Hub

This relationship between design and identity is everywhere. Everything around us is designed. Think about the way you personalise your workspace! We tend to place photos, gifts and memorabilia from travels on our desks or walls. We project our emotions and values onto spaces. Similarly, this identity can be achieved through interior design, technology, the choice of materials and furniture, as well as fixtures, signage, wayfinding, posters, brand collaterals and sensorial experiences (smell, touch, etc.). The possibilities of adding distinctiveness to the built environment are endless. However, they are always unpinned by understanding the identity of a space through the brand’s past, present, and future.

Developing a branded environment always begins with strategic planning and requires the involvement of different players such as architects, engineers, graphic designers, branding experts, marketing teams, media and users. Branding communicates (emulates?) values, manufactures emotions, and has the ability to give recognition to an industry through its unique visual identity. The personalisation of a logo, colour scheme choice of a website, the interior design of the workspace and the tone of voice on social media are among the elements that create your overall brand identity.

The extension of an organisation’s brand using space is defined in architecture and interior design as branded environments.

Spatial branding is about balance. It should be well-designed and not be overdone, overwhelming or too direct. It stems from the understanding of client “values”, “ethos” and “culture” that is translated into the layout. The strategy must include interviews, observation, collaborative exercises, and open dialogue, creating experiences both for consumers and all the stakeholders involved in the project while ensuring that the brand truly drives the design. The design is not solely for the customers, but it also gives an identity to the employees and should inspire motivation and productivity within a space. Again, here the sense of belonging plays an important role as it encourages them to produce their best work.

“What is important to understand for a company is that it's not just a logo, but everything that they do should reflect the attitude of the company. So of course all the printed packaging, logo, stationary, promotional material, description and then the product and their building, their office, their architecture, their interiors, it should be one thing; people should walk through the door and understand right away. "My God, this is a company that has it all together."” Massimo Vignelli, More Than Branding Interview, 2014

The city

This design principle may be extended to a larger scale – that of the city. A city brands itself in a similar way that a company does. What makes Paris, New York, London or Rome so memorable?

The identity of a place is deeply rooted in the telling of stories of a place; the transference of local knowledge attached to space.

There are four important aspects of residents’ feeling that they belong to the place or community.

  • Residents emotional bond or tie to their community.

  • Community identity implies that local features of the built, natural and design environment characterizes a physical identity of place.

  • A space may be designed as formal (e.g. active, planned) or informal (e.g. casual unplanned) social opportunity in which residents attend to the quality of their relationships.

  • A community is designed for walking and fostering street-side activities providing opportunities for greater social contact, enhanced identity and stronger attachment.

Thus, the design of a city cannot be separated from its collective identity. Through the engagement of multiple stakeholders, the city fosters its uniqueness and meaning of place. What makes a city unique is also its dynamic character that evolves through continuous re-design of space. City identity is therefore a distinct form of collective identity that hinges on multiple stakeholders’ perceived uniqueness and meanings of place. City identity is constructed over time and consists of collectively shared perceptions about a city’s sustained “character” or “ethos” as a collective effort of the locals as well as those that visit it. It is important also to note that what makes a city is not only the built-up area of the urban fabric, but also the space between the buildings – our outdoor spaces are equally as important.

“Place makes memories cohere in complex ways. People’s experiences of the urban landscape intertwine the sense of place and the politics of space,” writes architectural historian Dolores Hayden.

Social space and identity are specifically connected but, whereas architecture, urban planning and structures are seen as the design disciplines which perform semiotic work of constructing a city’s identity, we tend to overlook the power of visual arts and graphic design within our cities.

In short, all of our surrounding is designed. Think about all the images on billboards, street art, monuments, words or graphic forms. These all convey a message about the identity of a city. Although design may not typically thought of “real art,” and therefore the impact of graphics may be too subtle to spark our imagination, it is time to take a second look at how smart graphic design can help transform an area in unexpected ways.Signage is a powerful means of communication in a city by using colours, images and forms to convey information.


One way to engender sense of ownership in residents and users of place is through their participation in the design of their environments.

Users who participate in the design of places develop a sense of meaningful involvements and enhances a sense of belonging.

By building a user’s competence in partaking in the design of their environment, the participant feels as though he or she created a unique place – one in which the user has ownership over.

Are you in a space which you identify with?


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