Toby Israel Ph.D.

Design on My Mind

Keep Calm and Carry On with Design Psychology

The spaces we design these days must offer security AND hope

Posted Dec 30, 2015

Are you nervous when going to public places these days? After the latest terrorist attacks, fear momentarily accosted me as I drove to the NeoCon East design conference at the Philadelphia Convention Center this past Fall.  I opened my passenger door, told fear to “Get out!” and instead invited “Focused Anticipation” to sit next to me, especially since this year’s event incorporated AIA’s ‘Design on the Delaware Conference,’ too.

Parking a few streets away, I took ‘Ms. Focused Anticipation’ with me as I walked toward the back of the Center, a giant building sprawled over a number of city blocks. Once there, I found its back and side doors locked. ‘Security issue? Go right? Go left? No signs. ‘Ms. F. A.’ and I got nervous that we’d miss the first of many luscious-looking NeoCon East lectures.

Keeping calm, I carried on around the corner and entered a vast, semi-deserted lobby. A guard directed me to another no-man’s-space. Frustrated, I created a Design Psychology game by collecting ‘data’ as I walked to find my destination: I asked 11 personnel for directions; 5 gave me correct vs. 6 who gave me incorrect directions; It took me 20 min. to find the lecture room. (In an emergency would people ever find their way?)

Ironically, that first lecture, ‘Walk a Mile in their Shoes’ stressed the importance of collecting data before making design decisions. (Like, where to strategically place signage?!) Presenters from RTKL(1) showed how to involve users via tracking and surveying, visioning and focus groups - - all people-sensitive design research techniques I’d acquired as an Environmental Psychology Ph.D. Now, however, it’s possible to collect data using state-of-the-art technology that records human factors (including safety and security issues) that architects must consider.

Next, keen to discover products designed with people (not just aesthetics) in mind, I entered NeoCon’s exhibit hall. Overwhelmed by the huge, public space, I gravitated toward Via Seating’s graceful, ‘OYO’ chair - - a modern-looking rocking chair dressed in snazzy work/dining-chair disguise.  What better way to calm ourselves these days than to rock?

Source: Courtesy of aeris GmbH

Then it was good to get outside again and tour the ‘South Philadelphia Community Literacy Center.’ Designed by VSBA, this innovative model of a community building will house a city health center, public library, support services and recreation center under one roof. Yet why not call it ‘The CHILL Center” (‘Community Health & Inviting Learning Library’ for short)?  Now, more than ever, designed spaces need to send a message that they offer “prospect and refuge.”(2) A neighborhood CHILL Center suggests such a soft place to land. The name “Literacy Center” might read as “Welcome You Illiterates,” and invite only ruffled feelings and withdrawal.

Another very memorable talk I attended was given by Jake Barton, founder of Local Projects, a firm “reinventing public space through media.” Masters of participatory design, they created the September 11th Memorial Museum exhibition by placing media’s multisensory magnifying glass on stories and memories- - the oral and visual history of individuals whose lives were ended or forever changed by the attack.

Since that means ALL of us who were psychically hit on 9/11, visitors can enter a set-aside sound studio and record their experience of that tragic day. You then can hear such recordings, echoes of past and lingering trauma, as you tour the exhibit. Thus ‘users’ experiences’ of Past, Present and Future are simply, authentically captured and these stories are forever added to the 9/11 archive.

I visited the WTC site and museum a few weeks later, intrigued by Barton’s talk about ways Local Projects engages audiences “through emotion and technology, developing new ways for people to interact with art, cities and one another”(3) Once at the site, the new “Freedom Tower’s,”(4) bunker-like base appeared to visually lock down the slightly twisted skyscraper, reminding me to beware of another attack rather than inspiring me to think positively.

Once inside the nearby 9/11 museum, I was again disoriented in a vast space. This time, however, such confusion seemed appropriate, even purposefully designed to enable visitors to emotionally walk in victims’ shoes down, down into the heart of darkness. There at the bottom of the exhibit stood the WTC site’s still standing slurry walls, “The Rorschach image upon which we could all project not just the tragedy of 9/11 but the rawest moments of our own lives.”(5)

After a morning immersed in powerfully, artfully displayed memorial debris, I left the Museum, looked up and noticed the WTC Transportation Hub’s bird-like, soaring , expressive design(6) that to me “symbolized the importance of emerging into a life of hope.”(7) It soothed and oriented me as did the site’s massive, evocative memorial fountain where I paused and then continued on my way home.

With hope and rebirth in mind, I will welcome the New Year by traveling by train, car and foot through North Central Florida wilderness - - outdoor public places where birds and manatees, not humans or buildings, fly and float. I’ll then land at Seaside, the landmark people-centered community designed to encourage public gathering. There my Designing From Within workshop will be about ways to build home based on (yes!) our most soothing stories of Past, Present and Future place. 

Best wishes for your safe travels, too. With the help of Design Psychology, may you move through spaces that make you feel safe and calmly focused, anticipating, hoping that the best is yet to be.


1.Presentation by Jodi Williams, AICP, Senior Workplace Strategist and Stefana Scinta, Workplace Strategist, both of RTKL’s Washington, D.C. office

2.The “prospect and refuge” theory introduced by Jay Appleton in 1975 states that humans have a basic psychological need for places to provide them with both safety and opportunity - - refuge and prospect.


4. Designed by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the tower is now officially called One World Trade Center

5.Toby Israel, Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places (Princeton: Design Psychology Press, 2010), p. xi

6. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the station still is under construction as of this writing.

7. Toby Israel, Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places, pp. xi – xii. I originally used this phrase to describe the Freedom Tower which was to be designed by Daniel Libeskind only to be replaced by the less inspiring skyscraper design by Childs.

Copyright Toby Israel 2016