Designing For Life – Architecture and Design Psychology

Design psychology is the use of psychology as the fundamental principle for design decisions in architecture and interior design. Cultural patterns of architecture reveal many fundamental principles of design psychology. A group of architects led by Christopher Alexander compiled what they learned about architecture around the world into a book called A Pattern Language (1977, Oxford University Press). This book discusses virtually every aspect of buildings including entrances, windows, hallways, fireplaces, kitchens, sleeping areas, home offices and workshops, walls, and storage spaces.

The research done by these architects revealed the need for people of all cultures to feel safe and nurtured in their homes, neighborhoods and towns. Simple patterns for positive environments included things like designing rooms to have light coming in from at least two sides and more than one entrance or exit if possible. Our eyes are built to handle visual processing with multiple light sources rather than a light from a single direction. This makes seeing more difficult in environments where light is coming from only one direction. In addition, we have an instinctual need for an escape route and recoil psychologically when confronted with cave-like rooms where we may feel trapped.

A closely related field to design psychology is proxemics, the study of cultural differences in personal boundaries and space requirements. Proxemics is intimately connected to design psychology and the placement of physical dividers such as doors and walls. In offices and homes alike, a social order is established by proximity. The offices that are the most distant from the waiting room and closest to the boss are for the most important staff members. Likewise, master bedrooms are usually the most distant from shared spaces such as entryways and living rooms. The rooms closest to the kitchen, family room and gathering areas are for those lowest on the totem pole, usually the children.

Proxemics also has much to do with issues of privacy. Those who have important activities and conversations to engage in need to have their space. When material dividers aren’t available, visual and auditory clues can serve to define boundaries. Signs, frosted glass, bells and intercoms can serve to separate places where others are welcome and places where they must have permission to enter.

Design psychology and feng shui share many principles. Although the two approaches often come to the same conclusions, they differ in their foundations. Feng shui practice generally relies on a combination of tradition and intuition and design psychology generally relies on a research model. It could be argued that feng shui is a right-brain approach and design psychology is a left-brain approach. Perhaps a combination of these approaches with equal measures of common sense and practicality will yield the best solutions for architectural environments that meet both the basic and higher needs of their inhabitants.