Toby Israel Ph.D.

Design on My Mind

Back to School: Therapists Design for Life

A 'Design Psychology Certification Program' fulfills interdisciplinary dreams.

Posted Sep 13, 2017

Since I am a Design Psychologist, do I make buildings lie down on the couch and tell me their problems? No. I study why people put their couch in an isolated corner, keep their drapes drawn or paint their room the magenta of their unhappy childhood home. I’ve helped clients replace such ‘"bad memory" décor "triggers" with design elements that resound with their best of past-place echoes. Thus, I enable clients to “Design from Within” their inner psychology in ways that support their well-being, growth, and change.

Is Design Psychology a form of therapy? Since my Ph.D. is in environmental rather than clinical psychology, the emphasis of my consultations is on helping people change their space rather their "selves." Inevitably, however, self and place are intertwined. Perhaps that’s why both psychologists and designers regularly reveal to me (as if from dark confessionals) their secret desire to marry design + psychology in their professional practice. They constantly email me asking, “Where can I study Design Psychology?”

For years, my virtual, frustrated reply has been, “No university-based Design Psychology programs exist.”1 Even my most supportive colleagues who tried to champion Design Psychology in higher education have been stymied by the “University Industrial Complex”—higher education focused on the bottom line resulting in over-worked professors or pop-in adjuncts with little time to mastermind new course offerings, overly dominant disciplinary silos rather than interdisciplinary initiatives, 2 and strict, professional requirements with little "give" for innovation.3

Since necessity is the mother of invention, I decided to give birth to my own Design Psychology Certification Program. No longer in its infancy, the program now is a well-grown, online, year-long mentorship via which I work with students around the world who want to learn about this new field. The curriculum includes Design Psychology theory, techniques, and a case study practicum. Within this framework, students collaborate with me to fine-tune their course of study. Inevitably, psychologists need to know more about design, and designers need more in-depth knowledge of psychology.

Developing such a course of study outside the "complex" university boundaries frees me to engage in what Paolo Freire called a “humanist,” “revolutionary” education wherein “the educator...together with the students engages in “critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization.”4 Although the Design Psychology Certification Program does have required reading and assignments, it focuses on encouraging students to “Learn from Within”—to examine their own self/place connection with an eye towards a personal (not just interdisciplinary) transformational shift. Put simply: Each student’s own place in the world is the starting point for their Design Psychology training. Thus, their motivation to learn is deeply personal, not just intellectual.

To apply for the Certification Program, I require that prospective students first take my three-session Home Design Psychology webinar. This gives them a chance to assess if they want to commit to the program, especially since it has high standards yet no grades and a qualification not recognized by any governing body.5, 6  Lucky for me, applicants self-select: Those who apply seem truly to be looking for deep knowledge and have a willingness to engage in an authentic, intensive mentorship.  Also lucky for me: Since I conduct all such mentoring one-to-one on Skype, I can wear my pink, fuzzy slippers to work!

What path do my students walk down once they’ve completed the certification?  How do they apply Design Psychology?7 Both designers and psychologists have translated the knowledge they’ve gained into "Design Psychology Blueprints," specific guidelines for style, color, furniture and other design elements used to create socially and emotionally satisfying places. Thus, such design interventions aren’t about just making beautiful places. Especially in the hands of clinical psychologists, Design Psychology can be a “design therapy” that (like art therapy) helps clients move more healthily along their life journeys.

One psychologist in the Certification Program, for example, is using Design Psychology’s “Favorite Place” visualization exercise with an aging client who’s struggling to adjust to her nursing home.8 The therapist hopes that the exercise will remind her client of their fondest past-place colors and special objects. Then these positive triggers (a bedroom painted yellow, not magenta!) may help this senior feel uplifted and "at home" with this more personalized décor.

Besides transforming healthcare settings, other psychologists and designers who’ve completed the Design Psychology Certification are making their interdisciplinary dream come true by creating homes that are life-enhancing catalysts. For example, in her Trulery blog Helping My Client Achieve a Cultural Oasis, N.J. counseling psychologist Sarah Seung-McFarland, Ph.D., describes how she helped “Rosa” express her Puerto Rican, feminine "self." Seung-McFarland helped Rosa with her clutter but, beyond this, a "Design Psychology Blueprint" suggesting a bright, colorful area rug, a profusion of plants, books all around, and, most importantly, a prominent portrait of a beautiful Latina woman offer Rosa daily reminders, visual touchstones that nudge her along her journey of becoming a strong woman proud of her cultural identity

Design by Sarah Seung-McFarland
Source: Design by Sarah Seung-McFarland

Finally, since no university courses teach therapists how to design an Incredible Shrinking Office, some learning about Design Psychology are exploring new ways to create an oasis by design for patients and for therapists, too.  Claire Jaffe’s dissertation, for instance, explores ways Design Psychology can help create “holding environments,” places of restoration for therapists who understandably get depleted "holding" patient’s intense life stories within the confines of their doctor’s office walls.9

In the end, the couches of therapists, designers, and all of us need to go somewhere. Why not rearrange Design + Psychology training, professional practice and our same-old couch potato perspectives to re-establish peachy personal and professional places to sit?

Copyright Toby Israel, 2017


1.For more information on Environmental Psychology programs, see the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA). Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, for example, offers a notable multidisciplinary Environmental Psychology (although not Design Psychology) Program.

2. For more on the challenges of higher education today see: Berlinderblau, Jacques. Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t for Professors, Parents and Students.  New York: Melville House, 2017 and Davidson, Cathy N., The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. New York: Basic Books, 2017.  

3. ‘Design Thinking’ programs like the one offered at Stanford’s D-School are innovative in their interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving.  Graduates of such programs often are hired by companies like IDEO that take a “deep-dive” into the minds of consumers yet not the deeper than deep-dive offered by Design Psychology.

4. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th Anniversary Edition). Bloomsbury Academic, 2000, p. 75. 

5. Although the year-long Design Psychology Certification Program  is not accredited by any university, components of the course do offer CEU credit.  For example the Home Design Psychology webinar series offers .6 CEUs via IDCEC.

6. Depending upon individual goals, I also encourage students to take university-based professional courses in design and/or psychology.

7. A crucial difference between Environmental and Design Psychology is that the former is primarily a research field and the latter an applied field.

8. Psychologist Kristin Talka, PhD. 

9. Claire Jaffe, PsyD student Widener University

About the Author

Toby Israel is an environmental psychologist who studies design psychology.

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