Psychology in Design


Many people recognize that an understanding of environmental psychology is essential to successful interior design.   Interior designers must have a knowledge of human tendencies in order to create environments that are optimally tuned for the human behavior and emotions that we intend to invoke. Classes in environmental psychology are very much integrated into many design programs, and students are exposed to seminal texts like The Hidden Dimension by Edward T. Hall that help them understand how humans interact with their environment.

Woman reading The Hidden Dimension by Edward T. Hall

Having a working knowledge of psychological principals is not only essential in terms of designing effective interior environments. It is also so useful in the daily operation of the interior design business itself.

Last month, Amy had the opportunity to speak with seniors at Cornell University, her alma mater, about how she incorporates her knowledge of psychology into her design practice. In addition to the psychological background Amy picked up at Cornell, she also concentrated on organizational behavior as part of her MBA in management. A former professor at Cornell asked Amy to share with the students some of the principals she picked up along the way and how they inform the day to day operations of down2earth interior design.

When it comes to relationships with clients, being psychologically adept is critical. Some of the areas where psychological attunement comes into play include knowing whether a client is a good fit, establishing comfort and trust, coaching clients in decision-making, and setting boundaries.

Good Fit:

A designer and a client must have a great fit to be a truly successful team. It’s actually much like dating, where someone might advise you that there’s a “lid for every pot.” Similarly, I love this quote, so boldly illustrated by Amber Share‘s @subparparks.

Graphic art featuring the quote "You can be the whole package and still be on the wrong porch".

Good client/designer chemistry begins with self-knowledge on both sides. Once you know which characteristics have led to successful collaboration in the past, it’s important to ask questions to uncover those characteristics early on.   For example, we have learned that we can’t do our best work when rushed, so if a client tells us their project is urgent and on a fast-tracked timeline, we know that we’re just not the right fit, and that’s okay.

Comfort and Trust:

Trust is everything in a designer/client relationship. To get off on the best foot, we try to establish a level of comfort in the relationship right off the bat. As Yogi Berra said, “you can observe a lot by watching.”

Picture of Yogi Berra with the quote "You can observe a lot by watching".

Our job, when we visit a client’s home or workplace for the first time, is to help identify areas that require design intervention, and since we are coming in with a fresh pair of eyes, we sometimes catch things a client misses. Maybe they knew once that they wanted to do something about a certain area of their home, but time goes by and they “stop seeing” the visual clutter or inefficiencies. Our fresh pair of eyes can help a client realize (or re-realize) some of the deficiencies of their space. We try to be real about these deficiencies – after all, we were brought in for a consultation for a reason. But because people are often self-conscious and fear being judged negatively, we try to do this in a manner that is warm and relatable. We also find it really helpful to relate our recommendations back to the client’s original goals, and not a more arbitrary measure like taste.

For example, each of our clients is given a bit of homework before we meet, namely to create an ideabook that captures a half dozen or so images that sum up the vibe they want their space to have once we’re done. When we are able to tie our recommendations into the goals our clients have for themselves, and that were made manifest in their ideabook, it becomes clear very quickly that we’re teammates moving towards the same end destination, not someone who holds their taste above others’.

Design books displayed.

Trust is established through active listening, doing what you say you’re going to do, and being transparent. Our pricing policies, built solely around hourly fees for our time and no mark-ups on products, are designed to promote transparency. We also aim for transparency when we are weighing the different design proposals on the table. We strongly believe that a design presentation should be a conversation, not a sales pitch. If there are pros and cons to a particular scheme, let’s be upfront about both so the client knows we’ve got their back and are not missing an important deficit. Rather, if we’re proposing a scheme with full knowledge of this drawback, we can talk about the advantages that might be so large that they offset the downside.

Decision Making:

A fundamental part of our job as interior designers is to be a decision-making coach for our clients. It is widely known that too much choice is paralyzing. I once heard Barry Schwartz, author of “ The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” interviewed and my head was nodding the entire time.

Cover of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz

When we explain our process to our clients and show how we curate their furniture selections into a moodboard and provide only links to the items that we think will work the best, I see their eyes light up. Sifting through all the noise is one of the most value-added services we provide.

Truth be told, however, some people are just much more able to make a decision that meets their goals and move on (satisficers), and some people need to circle around and around to make sure they’ve found the very best option (maximizers).

Having worked with both types of people, the design process runs much more smoothly and is way more cost-effective when a client can assume the attitude of a satisficer.  In truth, nothing is perfect, not even an environment designed by a caring and thoughtful interior design team.


As those of you who’ve worked with us can attest, we try to communicate (in a friendly way) whether there might be a bit of wait before we can get started and which design-related services we do and do not perform.   Every new client receives a link to a video that outlines our process right off the bat:

We also try to protect our personal time so that we can develop other passions and relationships that make us healthier humans and better designers.   Then we are able to come to our projects refreshed and ready to give our all to each and every client of down2earth interior design.

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