People, Places, and Things

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

Designing for Now – and Next

Smart design is good for you and our planet.

Smart design endures - we don’t change it out, because we don’t want to.

But when is design “smart”?

Most any search on “smart design” turns up ideas for linking technology to something – spaces where automated lights shine with different intensities and colors at various times or phones that effortlessly and efficiently accomplish things that were unimaginable even a few years ago – but when psychologists talk about smart design, they’re not focusing on whirligig gizmos. Psychologically smart design is simultaneously so much more and so much simpler than design that incorporates the latest technology – you could call it “psychologically sustainable.”

Psychologically smart design realistically coordinates with what you do. This means that you have spaces and things in your life that support activities that are important to you - and whether design is coordinated is not always as clear as it should be. We spend so much time every day making do with the spaces and things that surround us, that we lose track of the fact that often they aren’t quite right.

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You’ve probably heard of the teams of anthropologists hired by design firms that follow people around and watch then for weeks to learn about what’s missing from their lives. You need to become your own anthropologist. Keep a log of what you do where in your home for a week or two and you’ll find that your life is packed to the gills with kluges – times you use a space or thing in a way that doesn’t really work. You need to get rid of those kluges – they are making you tense. Changing everything at once doesn’t work – that requires lots of both time and money – focus on the things that are most important to you first. Keep looking and refining until there is a fit between what you do and where you are. Garage sales are a great source of things you may need - and a good way to get rid of your extra stuff – even celebrities have figured this out. The new television schedules are packed with garage sale and flea market based “adventure” shows. Tuning into your environment, and aligning it with your life, makes you feel good and doesn’t have to harm your pocketbook or the planet.

Smart spaces and things also comfort you. When we’re comfortable, we’re relaxed, and when we’re relaxed we get along better with others and think more broadly, so we’re better at solving problems and more creative. We’re also healthier. Being in sunlight is comforting, so open up those curtains. Curved leaf indoor plants make us more comfy and so does seeing nature outside. Looking at water – inside a fountain or aquarium, outside a fountain or a lake or the seashore - gives us a positive kick. We also are comfortable when we can be alone when we want to be, have a place – big, small, or tiny - that we feel is ours, and have some control over our physical environment – for example, we can turn light fixtures on or off, change the thermostat or open a window. Comfortable spaces are something we’ll talk about a lot in future articles.

With smart design you communicate who you are. We’re always reading houses and offices to understand what’s important to their owners – that’s one of the reasons that TV celebrity house tours are so popular – and one of the reasons we fret so much about decorating our home. We don’t want to choose the wrong couch and “say” the wrong thing. You’ll only be able to completely relax in a place that’s sending the messages you want people to hear about you – so decorate your home in a style and with things that communicate what you want said. World traveler? Concerned citizen? Parent extraordinaire? Make sure your place tells your story. If you live an environmentally responsible life, the materials you use in your home, the way you landscape your yard, and where you set your thermostat are all clues others will read to learn about your values and lifestyle.

Finally, smart design continues in your life. When we’re in a familiar place, with objects in it we know well, we can really decompress and make sense of our lives. Continuing means less churn of resources, and that’s not just good for you and your credit card balances; it sustains the environment.

Smart design enhances our mental health and the planet we live on. It’s planning for now and for what’s next, for us and the Earth.

 

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

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