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Mariam Aslam, University of Toronto Scarborough


Editor’s note: Mariam Aslam presented on this topic at the 2012 NACADA Annual Conference in Nashville, TN and the perspectives of advisors and advisees incorporated throughout this article are from her primary research for that presentation.

Mariam Aslam.jpgWith dwindling budgets and competing priorities, higher education institutions are increasingly dealing with space constraints. Many advisors and administrators are being tasked with the difficult job of serving a growing number of students with existing – and often inadequate – physical space. Physical space is especially important when considering first impressions of advisees; space is a tool for facilitating rapport building between the advisor and advisee and should also be perceived as “safe” for both advisor and advisee (Lantta, 2008). According to Folsom (2011), “the design and functionality of advising space is integral to and supports advising missions, goals, objectives, and student learning outcomes. For example, the physical location and décor of advising space sends a message about the institutional role and mission of academic advising to students” (83). If advisors want students to know they matter, attention must be directed to the manner in which students are welcomed into academic advising centres and offices.

Environmental Psychology, a branch of psychology which analyzes the relationship between environments and human behavior (De Young, 1999), and Appreciative Advising, which looks to “help students optimize their educational experiences and achieve their dreams, goal and potentials” (Bloom, Hutson, & He, cited in Strain, 2009) are helpful lenses when analyzing the most important aspects of the advising environment.

Wall colors are infrastructural aspects of space that most advisors do not always have control over; there may be a required standard color for all of the offices in the department. These colors may align to earth/natural tones, recommended for building rapport with students (Strain, 2009). For advisees, the preference of the wall colors in an advisor’s office varies, ranging from neutral warm colors which are seen to prevent being too bright or intimidating to brighter colors like yellow, blue or green to reveal more of their advisor’s personality. In Silver and Ferrante’s (1995) research, cited in Pressly and Heesacker (2001), positive responses were reported for brighter wall colors (blue, green and red) in the office environment in which students received counseling.  

Personalization of office/work space can include décor, photos, plants/flowers and artwork/posters, allowing the advisor’s personality to shine through and assist with “softening” or beautifying the office/work space (Miwa & Hanyu, 2006; Nasar & Devlin, 2011). For some advisors, including photos of their personal lives allows them to build a rapport with their students by creating a fine balance between their professional and personal lives. At the same time, this openness makes the interaction between the advisor and advisee less transactional, allowing advisees to see beyond the meeting as being “all business.” Additionally, some students feel that plants/flowers provide positive energy and hope, which has been echoed by Strain (2009) on the importance of “disarming” office space for advisees. Similarly, selected items of artwork such as encouraging/inspirational quotes or images/paintings of scenery can assist with providing perspective and feelings of calmness in times of stress for advisees. Personalizing office/work space is important in that it has an impact on how the advisor/counselor’s expertise and trustworthiness is perceived, along with how much control/ownership the advisor has over the advising space (Miwa & Hanyu, 2006; Nasar & Devlin, 2011; Pressly & Heesacker, 2001).

Furniture and its placement can have an impact on rapport building between the advisor and advisee. If the space is available, advisors may utilize a “café table,” where the advisor and advisee sit across from one another with a small round table in between. As a strategy for rapport building, the café table can provide an opportunity for a warmer relationship with a balanced distance/proximity between the advisor and advisee. Other advisors may prefer open space between themselves and the advisee with two arm chairs (softening effect). Both layouts have positive aspects. With a table/desk in between, a workspace is provided for writing and reviewing documents, while providing a sense of protection and control for both the advisor and advisee. The open space provides fewer barriers and easier communication and a reduced hierarchy between advisor and advisee (Eckerty, 2011, Pressly & Heesacker, 2001). Eckerty (2011) recommends, no matter the furniture layout, the way to the seat should be clear, as advisees want to know exactly where they will be sitting.  

Chairs with or without wheels are also an area of consideration, as advisors have noted that using chairs with wheels allows one to move around in the office, especially when moving from a café table to the computer. Another strategy to prevent feelings of hierarchy has been to keep chairs or seats at the same height between the advisor and advisee. 

Credentials are often displayed by advisors in order to demonstrate their professionalism and knowledge. For some advisees, credentials can be helpful in establishing the credibility of the advisor while others may not see the necessity of credentials or awards. In some research, credentials on the wall demonstrate a positive perception of the service provider’s qualifications, skills, experience, achievement, and training (Devlin et al., 2009).   

Other design facets of office/work space mentioned by advisors (at the annual NACADA conference) include music in the background, scents such as vanilla and lavender to promote calmness, dim lighting (Miwa & Hanyu, 2006), icebreakers such as interesting objects (i.e. wooden tennis racket, Magic 8-Ball, fish bowl) and candy.    

If academic advising assists retention and persistence of students, then the physical space through which advising occurs is a crucial tool for facilitating rapport building between advisors and students. As Roberta Feldman, architect and psychologist, has suggested, “the creation of the build environment isn’t just about form. It’s not just there for our visual pleasure, but has an enormous influence on our occupants” (Murray, 1999 cited in Pressly & Hessacker, 2001:148). To see this firsthand, consider sitting in the chair/seat used by the advisees and look around the space and see what they see, as first impressions are made in the first three seconds of the meeting (Flora, 2004 cited in Bloom et al.,2008:35). A good first impression can go a long way to solidifying the advisor-advisee relationship.

Mariam Aslam
Academic & Learning Strategist
Academic Advising & Career Centre
University of Toronto Scarborough
[email protected]


Bloom, J.L., Hutson, B.L., & He, Y. (2008). The appreciative advising revolution. United States of America: Stripes Publishing L.L.C.

Devlin, A.S., Donovan, S., Nicolov, A., Nold, O., Packard, A., & Zandan, G. (2009). Impressive credentials, family photographs, and the perception of therapist qualities. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(1): 503-512.

De Young, R. (1999). Environmental psychology: The study of human nature, reasonable behavior and durable living. Retrieved from http://www-personal.umich.edu/~rdeyoung/envtpsych.html

Eckerty, J. (2011). “Approachable” “Intimidating” “Unprofessional” “Credible”: What do our offices say about us?” Retrieved from, the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources from,

Folsom, P. (2011). “Chapter 6: Space design and redesign.” Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/portals/0/clearinghouse/Links/documents/Folsom-space-M22.pdf

Lantta, M. (2008). Supporting social justice through advising.  Academic Advising Today, 31(2):1.

Miwa, Y. & Hanyu, K. (2006). The effects of interior design on communication and impression of a counselor in the counseling room.” In, Environment and Behavior, 38(1): 484 - 501.

Nasar, J.L. & Devlin, A.S. (2011). Impressions of psychotherapists’ offices. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58(3): 310-320.

Pressly, P, K. & Heesacker, M. (2001). The physical environment of counseling: A review of theory and research. Journal of Counseling and Development, 79(2): 148-160.

Strain, A.L. (2009). What message is your office space conveying to students?  The Mentor. Retrieved from http://dus.psu.edu/mentor/old/articles/091007as.htmhttp://dus.psu.edu/mentor/old/articles/091007as.htm

Cite this article using APA style as: Aslam, M. (2013, March). “I love what you’ve done with the space”: The physical space of academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 36(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2013 March 36:1


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