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Design Psychology: Beyond Pretty Properties and Nice Knickknacks

Design Psychology: Beyond Pretty Properties and Nice KnickknacksDesign psychology goes beyond aesthetics, and beyond art and decor books to find something more — it seeks to uncover your very emotions and thoughts about settings. Design psychology seeks to connect you to the types of places, spaces and items that evoke the most pleasant memories.

Design psychology is about discovering your personal style and finding a place that truly fulfills you and feels like home.

Here’s an excerpt from a Los Angeles Times article on how design psychology works…

When Ran and Ronit Ever-Hadani expanded their Mar Vista home, they ended up with a long, narrow space that had a fireplace smack in the middle. Because the room was almost like a bowling alley with no natural flow, the couple didn’t have a clue what to do with it. So the area remained unused, and became a nagging reminder of their disappointment with the costly remodel.

“No matter how we rearranged our furniture, nothing seemed to fit,” Ronit says. “Every time we looked at it, we thought about all the money we spent.”

Instead of using traditional decorators to help them make over the room, the couple contacted Constance Forrest and her partner and sister, Susan Painter, two Venice-based psychologists who are pioneers in the emerging field of design psychology, which plumbs people’s emotional responses to an environment in order to create living spaces that truly feel like a home.

In this approach, the design scheme is dictated by the results of lengthy interviews they conduct to learn about their clients’ environmental histories, and to tap into the fulfilling experiences and emotions that contribute to their vision of an ideal place.

Now, after months of planning, Ran and Ronit are in the final stages of transforming the oddly shaped room into a warm living and dining area that not only reflects their personal tastes but also resonates with their psyches. The rich color palette echoes the persimmon and ivory hues in Ronit’s bridal bouquet and the buttery yellows of Ran’s favorite shirt, while an intricately designed wooden chair is reminiscent of the furniture Ronit’s father used to lovingly restore when she was a child. “I can still smell the turpentine,” she says, laughing.

Tapping into such psychological underpinnings can help define a home. “We want to create spaces that elicit that feeling of ‘yes!’ when the client enters them,” Painter says, “that instant, instinctive gut-level reaction that a place feels just right.”

According to the article, design psychology is partly inspired by earlier research conducted by Clare Cooper Marcus, a professor emeritus of architecture at UC Berkeley and author of House as a Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home. For her research, Marcus spoke with many people about their homes. Interestingly, people who had pleasant childhood memories applied some of their past environment to their current space (from location to furniture). However, people who had an unpleasant childhood tended toward the opposite by adopting a different style, for instance.

In addition to memories, design psychologists focus on personality and of course the person’s style and favorite things.

To formulate a design scheme that weaves together all these disparate threads, Painter and Forrest do intensive interviews to elicit the most positive, peak experiences that the client has had and mines those experiences for details of color, texture, light and spatial configurations to be used in the design of the new space. They also get a feel for clients’ taste and style by learning about their favorite things, such as articles of clothing, furniture, artwork or even jewelry, so that the final design reflects the client’s vision and not that of the designer.

In her book Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places, environmental psychologist Toby Israel features a variety of exercises that readers can try to “become more conscious of the meaning the environment holds for them…[and] envision and create homes and other places that express a fulfilling self-place bond.”

But first, another quote from Israel that emphasizes listening to yourself in the design process:

You want to buy a house.

You want to redecorate.

You want to design a garden, a school, a workplace, a park, a city.

You look to newspapers, to magazines to books, to designers, to mentors.

And then you can look to … YOU, just you and the accumulation of all you are and all you have been and all you have the power to become …

Environmental Timeline

Here, Israel asks readers to create a timeline of the settings they’ve lived in for six months or more from birth to today, along with their ages at the time.

For instance, my timeline would look like:

Place: Moscow, Russia Ladispoli, Italy Brooklyn, NY Palm Coast, FL Talla- hassee, FL College Station, TX Palm Coast, FL
Age: 0-6 6-7 7-13 13-18 18-21 21-24 24-now

Some of the questions Israel includes to get at your ideal, comfy, fulfilling space:

  • What type of setting did you live in the most under the age of 18? Did you like living in this type of setting? Why or why not?
  • What type of setting (city, town, suburb, village or countryside) did you live in for the greatest period of time as an adult? If so, why do you think you chose to live in that type of setting?
  • Is there a place(s) on the timeline where you lived as a child or an adult that you feel had a major impact on you? If so, why do you think that place(s) had that impact?
  • Are you happy living in your current setting or would you choose to move again? Why or why not?
  • Do you have any further reflections on past, present or future choice of home setting?

Special Objects Inventory

In another exercise, Israel suggests creating a list of the special items in your home along with what they mean to you.

Here are her examples:

Meaning: Connection with many cultures

Objects: Tapestries, artifacts from around the world, furniture from foreign countries

Meaning: Love of family and friends

Objects: Photographs, children’s drawings, gifts from friends

Meaning: Love of natural beauty

Objects: Rocks, shells, pine cones, plants

After creating your own list of meanings and objects, Israel also suggests asking yourself these three questions:

  • Do you feel that these objects and categories reflect you? Why or why not?
  • Are there other special interests or values you have that are not being reflected in your home? Are there special objects you could include in your home to reflect you?
  • If you could save only one of these special objects, which one would it be and why?

By the way, if you’re a student or work from home, here are some good ideas on creating a productive, comfortable space from several design psychologists.

?What are your thoughts on design psychology?
How do you choose a space or new furniture? If you’re a design psychologist yourself (or a designer), please feel free to chime in on your design process! This is just a primer, so it’d be great to hear your thoughts or knowledge about this emerging field.

Design Psychology: Beyond Pretty Properties and Nice Knickknacks

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Design Psychology: Beyond Pretty Properties and Nice Knickknacks. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 30 Jun 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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