There’s nothing radical about acknowledging that design in all its forms has the innate potential to create change. As the economist and psychologist Herbert Simon famously wrote, to design is to “devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”. In a way, Simon’s thought echoes the ultimate project success for architects and designers: when harnessed creativity manifests to fulfill a client’s needs or desires. But regardless of whether the commission is a decorative side table or a six-bedroom McMansion, the onus lies with the individual to awaken the influence of their own environment on their psyche. If design can function like therapy, then what do our homes say about our mental state?
Environmental, or space psychology investigates this complex interplay between people and their surroundings. The evolving discipline, which was spawned by American psychologist Harold Proshansky, crosshatches multiple theories about the wide-reaching influence of environment on our thoughts and behaviors. Concepts like Roger Barker’s behavior settings (an explanation of dynamic social behavior), place identity (how identities form in relation to our surroundings), and environmental load (the limits to manage environmental stimuli) explore the myriad ways we internalize, then project what’s around us.
Take Rachel and Stephen Kaplan’s attention restoration theory, which posits that people can concentrate better after spending time in nature. Knowing this, a designer might place the home office in a room flooded with natural light, anchored by a window that overlooks a field or garden to allow creativity to blossom. Or conversely, an architect might want to temper the negative triggers that might result from crowded apartment living (a notion extrapolated from John Calhoun’s defensible space theory) by designing units that enhance a sense of privacy for its residents.
You don’t need to be a clinical psychologist to understand the correlation here. And as creatures that spend the majority of our lives sheltered indoors, we humans have the ability to control these environmental impacts as we become aware of them, from one room to the next. Through clever and deliberate interior design strategies, space can transcend its functional purpose and rise to serve the psychological and needs of its inhabitants. After all, it’s been happening for millennia.
Indigenous civilizations have been leveraging design and architecture as a means to support human wellbeing since antiquity. The common objective? Alignment of the mind, the body, and the soul. Vastu Shastra, India’s traditional system of architecture, ushers in the flow of light and energy through spatial geometry and structural symmetry. Similarly, China’s feng shui focuses on the uninterrupted flow of qi (life force) to bring harmony and prosperity to those who inhabit the space. Though rationalists might eschew these examples as pseudoscience, these principles are still quite influential in the design world, fueled by discerning clients looking to tap into the mysterious ancient wisdom of their ancestors. But creating a sense of belonging in a space also comes from the compendium of objects we choose to populate it, which together, reflect our inner selves and values.
In his book, The System of Objects, French sociologist Jean Baudrillard considers the psychological significance of objects through his value system. Baudrillard’s theory contends that the individual items that fill our homes—appliances, furniture, decorative ephemera, and art—do more than just serve their individual function, but collectively form an outward-facing impression of our own personalities, desires, and priorities.
When we invite guests into our homes, Baudrillard hints that they’ll be able to learn a lot about us by evaluating the objects we keep using four value-defining criteria: function (an object’s instrumental purpose), exchange (its economic worth), symbolic (emotional ties to the object), and sign (serves as a symbol of prestige or status). As an example, we would infer vastly different personality traits about the owner of a refrigerator covered in travel magnets and family photos versus someone who keeps a monochromatic minimalist kitchen. So while a single object we display in our homes says something about us, it’s the greater space that divulges the entire story of who we are.
Like all forms of creative expression, there are no wrong answers in the world of design—that is, as long as you’re asking the right questions.