My Design Psychology Career: 'Art + Science' = True Love

Sculpting beautiful, profoundly meaningful places that allow us to transcend

Posted May 14, 2015

Photo by Mitchell Funk
Source: Photo by Mitchell Funk

My childhood time spent in our neighborhood’s ‘Big Woods,’ a magical kingdom of apple blossoms and tall trees, forever imprinted the importance of place upon me. It also inspired the path I later cut to create a meaningful career as a psychologist-designer-academic-entrepreneur. Last month when I returned to speak at my alma mater, City University of New York’s Environmental Psychology Ph.D. Program, I thought about creative ways to describe my journey founding and developing the field of Design Psychology. Perhaps I shouldn’t speak at all - - just give the audience some Playdough to sculpt a 3-D version of a professional career with many colorful parts. 

Forget that artsy idea: When I first applied to CUNY’s Ph.D. program they rejected me as they wondered if there would be a good fit between my arts background and their research-based social science program. They had a right to wonder. My resume read: “B.A. English/Studio Arts,” M.Ed. in “Creative Arts Education,” “Elementary school teacher,” “Visual Arts Coordinator” & head of N.J.’s public art program. Nice but not promising when it comes to passing CUNY’s statistics course.

Still, I had a passion. Remembering my “Big Woods,” I observed children (and adults!) at work and play, and realized that the physical not just the social environment has a profound impact on well-being. Thus I wanted to create places with a life-enhancing 'fit' between people and place.

Thinking I might want to be an architect, I researched architecture schools. Most focused on aesthetics and function rather than the 'people' aspect of place.  Then I heard an Environmental Psychologist speak about a famous architect’s “High Art” design of a psychiatric facility with reflecting glass and maze-like hallways that drove patients crazy. Environmental Psychology, she explained, provides an antidote to such myopic design. I was inspired.

Use your imaginary Playdough to sculpt a dog with a bone between her teeth and you’ll understand how I finally got accepted to CUNY’s Ph.D. program. Now thirty years later, there I was standing in front of students and my long-lost professors explaining why and how I shaped Design Psychology out of Environmental Psychology after completing my degree.  

At first, my post-Ph.D. career fit a traditional mold.  I became an associate professor at a U.K. architecture school.  Exercises I did with my students helped them open their treasure chests of past place to discover memories of grandparent homes, childhood forts, seaside porches and other settings of astounding richness and detail. I encouraged them to translate these personal, transcendent memories of color, shape, texture, and space into primal, satisfying design.

Returning to the U.S. in 1994, a book contract and my two (Playdough-loving) children in hand, it was clear that American design schools/designers still were firmly fixed on aesthetics - -  on ‘star architects,’ in particular. I wrung my hands, along with my Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) colleagues, over how ‘people & place’ research could be infused into such aesthetically-driven curriculum and applied to the deadline-driven business of design.

By now I was managing the research division of an architecture, planning and interior design firm by day and, by night, writing my book, Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places. Over the next five years, what began as a book about Environmental Psychology theory, morphed into interviews with design superstars, Michael Graves, Andres Duany and Charles Jencks, revealing how their past histories of place — their “environmental autobiographies”— unconsciously influenced their choice of home and well-known public work.

These were not your typical “tell me about your life and work” interviews. They were interviews based on a carefully developed series of exercises (like the ones I’d done with my students) that helped these renowned figures understand the profound role their physical environment played in their own emotional as well as professional development. For example, Graves had his aha! moment when the exercises revealed how his Princeton home and many of his public projects were (unconsciously) inspired by more than just his pioneering Post-Modernist style. The structures echoed the same internal layout of his favorite, transcendent childhood place, the Indianapolis stockyards where he spent time with his otherwise often-absent father.

So astounding were the sessions for these design stars and for me, I claimed that these case studies “challenged our most basic notions of home, place and, ultimately, of architecture and design.” I knew that the exercises I’d developed offered a ‘deeper-than-deep dive’ programming method via which people could uncover the rich design elements at the core of their psychological attachment to place. By thus using this raw material, designers and all of us could sculpt places that (like artworks) are beautiful, profoundly meaningful and allow us to transcend. What better way to finally bridge the gap between 'human factors' thinking and design practice?

With this in mind, I became a woman on a mission and in 1999 founded the field of Design Psychology, “the practice of architecture, planning and interior design in which psychology is the principle design tool.” The purpose of Design Psychology is to create not only functional and aesthetic but emotionally and socially satisfying places. Together with two design-oriented psychologists I’d invited to join with me, I began using my “Design Psychology Toolbox” of exercises to program and/or create ideal residential, school, healthcare and other spaces. 

The Design Psychology ball rolled along over the next fifteen years, picking up press coverage in the New York, LA and Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” and “Radio Times,” “CBS Sunday Morning” and more. My world-wide Design Psychology lectures and workshops encouraged professors and designers to teach and use this new form of practice.  

Now I’ve entered the digital age, giving Design Psychology webinars to those all over the world. Then, too, I am mentoring students via Skype in Warsaw, Bogotá, Houston and Eugene who’ve enrolled in my Design Psychology Certification Program. Through my consulting firm, I’m working with those transforming their ‘selves’ as they transform their space like my newly-widowed client who’s allowing bright reds, expressing her warmth and vibrancy, to replace (but not forget) her beloved British husband’s cerebral beiges. Also there’s my research on the impact of electronic art on hospital patients. Life comes full circle.  The colorful ball rolls on . . .

Have I accomplished my mission? Yes and no.  Too often architecture/design schools still remain fixed on their stars and see Design Psychology as tangential. Despite the worldwide queries I receive, no university-based Design Psychology course has yet to be established.  Unfortunately, too, designers who’ve never gone through the Design Psychology exercises sometimes falsely presume “It’s something we already do.” Still many others, after reading my book, taking my courses, or following this “Design on My Mind” blog, report back that they’ve experienced a mind-shift. Now they are molding truly people-centered spaces, loving the art and science of making unique careers and lives of benefit to us all.