People, Places, and Things

The psychology of design: How to create an environment in which you will thrive

Stuff Is Good

Sterile environments are as stressful as cluttered ones.

Recently, the press has been filled with articles about de-cluttering. All that ink may have convinced you that you should institute a “clean top” policy, packing away your souvenirs, family photos, and the other bits and pieces you have chosen to display in your home.

Stop! Although clutter is stressful, so is sterility.

You signal who you are and what’s important to you with the objects you place on your mantelpiece, coffee table, bookshelves, and other surfaces you chose to embellish. If there isn’t enough stuff around to let people visiting know who you are, they get tense—their energy gets caught up in trying to unravel the mystery of “you.”

You also need those reminders of who you are. When we get embroiled in the whirlwinds of our daily lives, it’s easy to get distracted and forget what matters to us, what we’re proud of in our past, and who we love. When that info isn’t close at hand, we’re stressed and don’t do whatever we’re up to as well as we do when we’re calm.

Too much is too much, however, and when you reach that “overstocked” threshold, you’ll know it. That point is different for each of us, tied into our personal history with interior design and our personality—extraverts do well with amounts of stuff on display that would crush introverts. When you start to question whether you should add something to the mix, you’ve hit the edge of the clutter abyss. Start to cycle the objects that are out and about in your home, packing some away to rest out of sight in boxes, drawers, and cupboards.

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Wallpapers, furniture styles, carpet patterns, and a myriad of other things in your home also send messages to you and your guests, but nothing speaks as clearly as your travel tidbits, photos, and other personalizing objects. Wallpaper may be hanging because it’s left over from a previous resident and you haven’t had a chance to deal with it, and furniture styles might be misinterpreted, for example. The exotic couch may have a prime place in your living room only because it reminds you of Aunt Millie from whom you inherited it—which would be impossible for others to determine without a related conversation.

Let the decorating mavens create all of the sterile homes their clients will fund; make sure your home tells everyone who enters exactly who you are.

Sally Augustin, Ph.D., is a practicing environmental psychologist who studies person-centered design and sensory science.

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