How can we merge psychology and architecture?

Excerpted from the 2021 SXSW session “Psychology in Architectural Design”, this interview addresses the value of exploring the connections between psychology and architectural design, and the potential benefit of bridging that gap.

Stacey Speck, an Associate and Regional Director of Business Development for Cushing Terrell, moderated the discussion between architect and associate principal Joel Anderson of Cushing Terrell and Dr. Sam Gosling, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Stacey Speck: Today, we will explore connections between psychology and architectural design and take a deep dive into these fields and where they merge, hearing from the perspective of a psychologist and an architect. We will discuss the importance and direction of a much-needed collaboration between these two fields.

I’m happy to talk today with Joel Anderson, architect and associate principal of design and sustainability at Cushing Terrell and Dr. Sam Gosling, psychologist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, with whom we’re collaborating on research to understand emotions people desire in different spaces of a building. Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “We shape our buildings, thereafter our buildings shape us.” I believe this, and it makes one question if this is true; why aren’t we talking about this more? 

Stacey Speck, Joel Anderson and Dr. Sam Gosling explore connections between psychology and architectural design Images courtesy of Cushing Terrell

Stacey: How is space psychological?

Sam Gosling: The difference between a house and a home is essentially psychological. You can have the very same building and one person can feel at home at that building. And somebody else doesn’t feel at home at all in it. And those differences are the sense of protection. The sense of being provided for, the sense of being loved and various other psychological factors. That is what makes it a home or a good place to work.

Joel Anderson: When I think of buildings on a psychological level, I see the building environment as the physical foundation of context that our culture and individual psychology are built upon. The individual’s success is ultimately determined through their interactions with society and society occurs on top of this platform of architectural environment.  

Stacey: According to studies 90% of what we think is unconscious and we spend 90% of our time indoors.

So, the buildings we are in affect us greatly whether we know it or not. The effect that the physical environment has on us often goes unnoticed and occurs on an unconscious level. However, almost every aspect of our psychology, whether we’re happy, whether we’re depressed, whether we’re productive or lazy, whether we’re creative or dull, is massively impacted by the architecture and design around us.

Stacey: How does our space affect us?

Sam: I’m a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, and I studied the interactions between spaces and people who live in them. I think we certainly can shape our psychology by the things we do in spaces. And in fact, we do that all the time ourselves.

So, we may get a desk calendar as a way of making ourselves more organized, or we may get fragrant candles and soft lighting as a way of relaxing. And we do things to the spaces ourselves in order to try to make ourselves feel and behave certain ways.

I think it’s quite hard to actually change our personalities. I don’t think you’re really ever going to turn an extrovert into an introvert or an introvert into an extrovert, but you may change our feelings, thoughts, or behaviors a little bit in that way.

Joel: Humans living inside of buildings is the obvious significance. And so, the connection to the human and the building is very important.

It’s been something that’s been on the radar of architects and interior designers starting with the home and places of spirituality. The connection to how you relate to all the pieces of context, the design, the furniture, shapes a social culture, and this framework of environment and society of creates who you are. Architecture and Interior Design are part of that contextual environment that defines a culture and a person.

Sam: The environment defines a person. The connections between people and spaces are really fundamental. In fact, they’re so fundamental and so automatic that we often don’t notice them.

In our research, we have outlined essentially three different ways in which people connect to the spaces in which they live and work.

The first is what we call identity claims. So, these are deliberate statements we make to others about our attitudes, about our goals, about our values. So just as you might put a bumper sticker on a car or some little signature at the bottom of your email, you might put something up in your physical space that says to others, Hey, this is who I am, and this is something about my values. Maybe this is something about my culture. This is something I want you to know about me.

A second way we affect the spaces around us is to affect our thoughts and feelings by using what we call thought and feeling regulators. These are for our own benefit, rather than to send signals to others (as was the case for identity claims). So, we’re doing things deliberately to the space, but we’re trying to make ourselves feel a certain way or have some thoughts or memories.

So classic examples of this might be a photo or memento of a special time or special person or special place. And we can look at that thing, which evokes a certain feeling we wish to have, like being reminded about your kid or pet.

The third way we connect to our spaces is what we call behavioral residue. And this is just the idea that we engage in many acts in our workspaces and our home spaces, and a subset of those acts leave a material trace in their wake.

So, the most obvious example of that is having a messy space, right? You have a messy space because you didn’t put something away. You have a neat space because you did put something away. So, these are acts that are reflected in the space. You can look at these traces of behaviors and infer the acts that the person engaged in, and therefore, maybe a little bit what they’re like.

Joel: We affect our space by how we choose to. Every decision we make is a design decision. We add art and cultural artifacts because they reflect the values, we want to see in ourselves. We shape daylight and views because we value them. We make spaces transparent because we believe in the cultural value of transparency. We remove walls because we believe they’re an unnecessary obstacle to a work process or a culture of collaboration. We decorate through details in art, furniture, lighting, acoustics, and even temperature because we want to encourage a mood or attitude. 

Discover how biophilic design can help reduce stress, head to the guide to Biophilic Design – Kellert’s principles and the benefits of nature.

“The connections between people and spaces are really fundamental” – Sam Gosling – Images courtesy of Cushing Terrell

Stacey: Architecture and design affect our lives every day, how we learn in schools heal and healthcare settings, how we can focus or be more creative at work. The physical environment is a crucible in which we live our lives. If it’s good, our lives can be good. If it’s not, it can be very problematic.

Sam: So, we do a huge number of things to our spaces, both deliberately and inadvertently, and those spaces than can affect how we think, how we feel.

And in fact, there’s a whole field known as emotion regulation. That is how we control our emotions. And some of the ways we do it are doing things like listening to certain types of music, but other ways we do it, are maybe trying not to think about something, avoiding something, so that emotion regulation is incredibly important.

But I think perhaps the most pervasive form of emotion regulation is in situation selection, where we influence the way we feel by choosing which environment to put ourselves in, which can as simple as walking over to the window in your house or going to a bustling café or peaceful garden.

Stacey: There was a famous study done by social science researcher, Roger Ulrich, between 1972 and 1982. Ulrich investigated the effect that views from windows head on patients, recovering from the very same type of surgery.

He studied a hospital that had rooms on either side of a corridor. One side had patient rooms over lifting windows that had a beautiful courtyard and trees. The other side had windows that look just directly into a brick wall of the building next to it.

He discovered that patients recovering from the same surgery whose hospital rooms had views, overlooking trees required less pain medication and had shorter hospital stays than those whose rooms just overlooked brick walls, where the doctor is intentionally thinking, I’ll put this patient in a room with a view of trees to heal faster, probably not, but does it make a difference? Is it powerful? Absolutely, according to Ulrich’s study.

Stacey: How do we design to include psychology?

Joel: The design process is researching the context and asking questions. How you ask those questions can really frame how a design process goes. For us, it starts with research and learning about where our client or the organization that we’re working for currently sits and where they want to go. What goals are they trying to achieve?

Evaluating their context, their understanding, their personnel, their people, their culture. You could connect brand and culture together if you wanted to because it’s kind of the same thing. If the culture feels right and you are designing within that culture and the context of the community, you’re in the sweet spot. My concerns arise when an organization’s aspirational culture is significantly distant from its actual work culture.

Sam: So, there was a very famous quote in personality psychology that said, in some ways we’re like all other people, in some ways we’re like some other people, and in some ways, we’re like no other people.

And I think you can really apply this also to architectural and design preferences. So, for example, there are some things that virtually all humans like, right? So, if you put humans in a room, most of them will prefer to look out of the window than to look straight at a blank wall.

Then there are some things that some people like, so there are some spaces that an extrovert might prefer over an introvert or somebody who’s conservative versus somebody who’s liberal, and there may even be cultural differences in preferences between say, somebody from China versus somebody from India. So, there might be certain things that some people like and others don’t.

And then there are things that are truly unique. There are no two spaces that are exactly alike because people have different preferences. And obviously, it’s important for designers and architects to be able to think about those three levels.

“We do a huge number of things to our spaces, both deliberately and inadvertently, and those spaces than can affect how we think, how we feel” – Sam Gosling Images courtesy of Cushing Terrell

Stacey: Let’s talk about our research.  How can we merge psychology in design?

Sam: I’ve been interested in this connection, between space and psychology and how one field can hopefully inform the other for the good, and occasionally I will find, architects who seem to see it the way I do, and that’s always tremendously exciting, but this is the first time I found a group who said, okay, let’s go for it. Let’s see if we can do some research and find things out.

The first things that need doing are essentially establishing a foundation; we don’t even have a framework or a language to be able to systematically describe emotions people design in spaces. So, in the work that we’re doing together with Cushing Terrell, what we have decided to do is say, okay, let’s try to find just kind of the basic dimensions of describing space.

Stacey: In our research, we’ve created a survey that gave people a selection of words to describe the feelings that they most desired in different spaces of an office. For example, survey results show that in individual workspaces, people chose the words, comfortable, productive, focused, and organized in social gathering spaces (like the kitchen and the break room), people chose the words, clean, entertaining, fun, friendly, and communal.

These are a completely different emotional states. So, it would make sense that designers use completely different design vocabularies that include different colors and materials. The light quality would be different.

Stacey: How does this apply to our office?

Joel: In Cushing Terrell’s Austin office, we have designed various spaces for different levels of focus.

There’s the individual focus where somebody is working by themselves, solo, working on a project. We really want the team member to be in sort of a flow state, getting their ideas out there, doing their work. You know, there’s a sense of production being done that they’re really trained into what they’re doing.

And there are spaces designed where collaborative groups can come together and kind of reframe work and structure the direction the team is going. There’s a large conference room and it’s got glass on three sides. One of them is an interior wall that opens to our social gathering space. We use the best views within the office democratically, for all team members to be able to experience.

Stacey: There are several spaces that I love in the office, my favorite is the East side of the building. It has a common area with a fantastic view of the Capitol. I love that anyone can use it anytime. When I’m there, I feel like we’re connected to something bigger, something important, but that we’re not pretentious because of the casual furniture in the space that includes rocking chairs.

Sam: It could be that everybody wants to have the same sense when they’re in their office. That would make sense. And there are probably some spaces that elicit more uniform responses than others, or some things that extroverts want vs. something else that introverts want.

So essentially that’s what the first wave of research has been about. It’s been trying to establish kind of a lexicon of terms we can use, and we need to define those carefully. So, we can have a scientific language for talking about these things. And then once we have that language, once we say, okay, circulation spaces in this context need to evoke these different feelings or senses or ambiances, then we need to systematically find out, what are the things we need to do to evoke those ambiences?

Stacey: Different people may have different experiences in the same space. We’re aware of this and must design for this. For example, in health care environments, we need to focus on both patients and doctors. In educational spaces, we need to focus on the student and teacher. And in offices, the C level and the staff. 

Each of these people may have a very different reaction to the same space and this is something we’re thinking about as we design these types of spaces. This knowledge should be incorporated into all design and we as users of offices, hospitals, and schools should expect this from our designers and architects.

We also know that different people communicate in different ways. Some people have a preference for visual communication, some are verbal communicators, while others favor physical communication. We try to provide entry points for all of these different ways of communicating ideas and feelings.

For example, we often use imagery to make sure that we mean the same thing when describing ambiguous words like warm or welcoming. Sam’s research discusses how we look at things, collect, filter and process information in an instant. So, the more designers can show through photos, renderings and different materials and not only talk, the better. 

Stacey: What public building types are we most concerned about in how they affect psychological health?

Joel: Homes are a high priority, but most of the population doesn’t live in a home shaped by an architect or interior designer and many development apartments and condos have a “stamped” model of fiscal efficiency ignorant to psychological health. Our next priority should be education, especially pre-k and k-12 since they shape our society the most. Next would be Healthcare and Workplaces. 

“We have been trying to establish kind of a lexicon of terms we can use” – Sam Gosling -Images courtesy of Cushing Terrell

Stacey: I know we’re concerned about all building types and how they affect psychological health. Workplaces, healthcare environments, homes and, especially from my point of view, schools. There have also been studies done on natural light in elementary schools.

There is a study by researcher, Lisa Heschong, sponsored by the state of California*, that found that kids in classrooms with a lot of natural light (either from windows or skylights) scored as much as 25 percent higher on standardized tests in both math and reading than other kids in classrooms with little or no natural light. Teachers might worry that windows in a classroom will be distracting to schoolchildren, it turns out that nature views actually improve student’s attention while also reducing stress.

According to the book “Welcome to your World,” Sarah Williams Goldhagen cites studies of college students who took a class in a classroom with linoleum floors, hard metal desks, and a blackboard. Students spent 2 weeks in this room then 2 weeks in a classroom similar in terms of size and orientation, but the furniture was soft, and there were rugs and couches.

The students participated an astonishingly 40% more in the “soft” classroom than in the “hard” classroom. The students are more engaged, participating more, and thus had a higher likelihood of learning more.  This is amazing!

Stacey: How important is educated intuition in design? Should we move to more data driven design process

Joel: More education across the professional borders of design and psychology is needed. Architects and interior designers should have a grasp of psychological concepts such as affective quality of place, personality trait mapping, motivational types of values, cognitive hierarchy frameworks of behaviors and values, social scales and size, aesthetics, linguistics, methods of communication, and so on.

Just like environmental psychologists should understand design processes, design research, proven design values, and the taxonomy of design language and ambiances. Some of this comes from experience and takes time. Some of this could be pushed earlier into the designer’s career phase

When we design for large scales of people, data research is a great starting point for design. Using surveys to understand a population or organizational framework helps us pull out company identities, cultural values, outliers, and trends, and allows us to make appropriate design responses.

Sam: We psychologists have done an absolutely terrible job at studying things and packaging the findings in a way that architects and designers can actually use in their work.

It is my fantasy that we get to a level, where just as when an architect says, “okay, you know, I want to put this column here, let me find out how big the column needs to be.” They would also have another book that says, “okay, I want to create a sense of wonder and creativity here. Let me look in the book and see how we do that.” Or let me see the procedures we use to do that in this culture and interact with those people.

Joel: The exploratory research that we’ve been doing with Sam on the inventory of desired ambiances is working towards a better understanding of the environmental psychologic landscape.

Within Cushing Terrell, we are also focusing on post-occupancy evaluations to help understand how our buildings are used a year or two or five after they’ve been completed, when people have gotten comfortable with the space and understanding how it’s used at that point in time. 

As architects, we find it to be incredibly valuable to learn how the spaces we design are actually used. Building use can change over time and as different people use spaces, making these post-occupancy evaluations very illuminating. Much of it comes back to some of the expected issues of thermal comfort and acoustics, but there’s deeper meaning in user satisfaction and efficient functional use.

Sam: Well, it’s certainly a complex problem of trying to apply psychological principles, to building design that will work as you think they will. And there will certainly be errors in doing so, there have been famous errors in the field of psychology, in the field of social housing, where people said, all right, let’s integrate psychology into social housing. And it just didn’t go at all as people thought it would, they thought there would be, these beautiful cities in the sky. And they turned out to be, these places where people felt isolated and, unsafe and unhealthy.

So, it doesn’t always work. So, I agree that it is hard. I think we should start simply, but I do think there are some pretty basic things, some pretty low-hanging fruit that we’ll be fools not to go after.

So, for example, we know a lot about something like sleep and the determinates of sleep and how the brain works in terms of needing certain types of light and certain types of sound and those sorts of things. If we could just make, many people sleep 10% better, right? Through understanding the psychological factors that go into sleep, we’d already be miles ahead of where we are now.

Joel: There is so much in the intuitive level of design that psychologists understand in terms of personality traits. And I think these ideas need to be core knowledge for architects as they think about designing spaces. Much of design relies on experiential intuition, but as time passes, needs change, and sometimes our intuitions need a shakeup.

Sam: I think it’s really tempting for all of us to use our intuitions about what kind of space would be good for people in general or good for people within a certain industry or good for certain types of people.

But I don’t think we’re as good at it as we like to think we are. And to demonstrate this, you only need to talk to one architect or designer about another architect and designer’s work because they will immediately say, I can’t believe they built that space like that.

That’s not this sort of sense or emotions you want to convey, and if you do want to convey them, you’d do it in completely different ways. All right, the fact that, you’ll find any two architects will not be able to agree on something, suggest that we can’t just intuit it because if they did, they’d all have the same intuition.

“Architects and interior designers should have a grasp of psychological concepts such as affective quality of place, personality trait mapping, motivational types of values..” – Joel Anderson Images courtesy of Cushing Terrell

Stacey: What would we like to see moving forward?

Joel: I firmly believe architects and designers need to take this responsibility upon themselves and in their firms to engage in this in some way for the betterment of the collective good of our society.

With good intent comes good things. And, if we’re designing with good intentions, then I think the world will incrementally grow to a better place. That’s ultimately what we’re looking for.

The scope and scale of this is becoming bigger. I think there might not be enough architects and interior designers in the world or in the United States to responsibly address these issues. I think there’s a lot of them that want to be addressing these issues but maybe aren’t, due to the work that they’re doing or other motivating factors.

When I think of it from the perspective of Cushing Terrell, and the hundreds of thousands of square footage of building space we touch, it is absolutely something of critical importance. When you see the magnitude of scale here, our potential impact is significant. 

Stacey: What’s so exciting to me about the research we’re doing, is the process of systemically integrating psychological factors into every space we design, helping people accomplish whatever it is that they want to achieve in that space, whether it’s focus is school, feel better in a hospital, or be collaborative or creative at work. In my mind, helping people achieve their goals is absolutely worth pursuing. 

Sam: You know, that’s where I’d love to get to. I think the world would be a better place if we could do that. The problem is we’re nowhere near that as a science, and that’s why these connections between the two disciplines are so crucial.

We need to be able to understand the questions that architects and designers have. And then we need to be able to do those studies. And we would have to study things in a slightly different way. But in my view, being well worth it, because if we could improve the effectiveness of residential and workspaces, it would have untold benefits across the world in terms of health and in terms of productivity. It would be a very, very desirable place to live.

Stacey: Thanks so much, it’s been fantastic to talk with you both.

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