Think of the first time that you set foot on your campus. What thoughts ran through your mind? Think of the sights, sounds, or smells. How did those things make you feel?
I still remember when I was in high school and walked onto the campus of Wabash College. Being from a small, rural community, I had never seen so much red brick all in one place, much less the white colonnades and greenery. Everything had an ambiance like I was at a prep academy similar to the one in the movie “Dead Poets Society”. It was exactly what I had envisioned a college to look like and strongly influenced my decision to go there as an undergraduate.
First impressions matter! One of the basic things that I used to teach in my interpersonal communications course was that people will form impressions and expectations about someone they’ve just met within the first 60 seconds of encountering them. Those impressions tend to strongly impact any future interactions with that new person, which is why you may have heard, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”. You don’t even need to have a conversation with that new person. Just seeing them, hearing them speak, or smelling their perfume or cologne can be enough to draw conclusions.
This concept also holds true for physical structures. When we encounter a building or a room for the first time, we draw conclusions that impact how we interact with that structure going forward. A building with lots of windows and open space may attract students or colleagues to come in and work. The sight and smell of dusty books may repel students from coming to the library. How many of our campuses have spaces that look like the 1970s with burnt orange, olive green, mustard yellow, and earthy brown colors along with shaggy textures? Throwback designs might be trendy and cool now but, as time goes on, it can make an institution seem too dated and behind the times.
Ideas like this are used frequently by architects and designers in the planning phases of construction or renovation. Les Shepherd, chief architect of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) said, “When we construct a building in a town, that building is the federal presence….For the town and visitors, the first impressions are in the design, function, and architecture of that new building” (Partnership for Public Service, 2009). In another example, CR Architecture & Design (2015) tells potential clients, “The exterior of a building delivers the first impression that drives a person’s interest in entry. The interior clarifies that impression and motivates an extended stay, and a desire to return”.
Macro-level factors of construction and design may be ones outside of our control and way above our pay-grade. However, we may be able to more easily impact how we arrange and decorate our offices and working spaces. We can arrange our office furniture in ways to that make us appear more open to collaborative discussion and less like a forbidding authority figure. We can choose wall hangings and office decor that not only describe ourselves and our interests, but also provide conversation pieces to open discussions with students. We can even choose to do some of our work away from our offices, literally meeting students where they are. Ever thought about spending an afternoon working at the student union? What kinds of conversations might you have there that you wouldn’t have in your office space?
You may never get a second chance at a first impression. We all certainly spend a lot of time every day working on how we present ourselves to the world around us. A chance bad hair day, a smell that causes a headache, or hearing someone make a mean comment in passing can have a long-lasting impact on a relationship, for better or worse. But you can also influence what impressions people draw about you and your work environment.
So, I encourage you to take a minute after the craziness of the end of the semester and look at your surroundings. Think about how being in that space makes you feel. Maybe ask other people what impressions they have about the space and what it says about you or your department. Then spend some time determining what you want your space to communicate, even when you’re not there. You have the power to shape first impressions. Now you can work intentionally toward shaping your space to bring those impressions into a reality for your students, your colleagues, and yourself.