Design Psychologist

Susan Lee Painter, PhD
AC Martin Partners; ForrestPainter Design
University of California
Los Angeles Interior Design Program

November/December 2000

It was not my intention to become a design psychologist when I went on sabbatical from my tenured position at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. In fact, at that time, design psychology didn't exist as a field yet — it was only over the course of several years that I, along with two colleagues, developed the field of design psychology and began to make my career in it. After two different careers based on my training and interests in psychology, I thought that I was leaving the field of psychology far behind in 1991. But I always followed my evolving interests. Today, my career in design psychology — the practice of interior, environmental and landscape design in which psychology is used as a tool for design — is really a series of careers, all in a state of movement and growth.

After 3 years as the founding director of the Canadian government's National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, 6 years of teaching and research at Carleton University, and my longtime fascination with the fields of architecture, design and art, I negotiated a 2-year sabbatical leave to become a full-time interior design student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). During my interview at UCLA, the program director, intrigued with my background in psychology, asked me to teach the required course, "Human Factors in Design." Challenged, I developed a curriculum for a course that I still teach — one that focuses on fulfilling the psychological needs of clients and users of space, rather than simply using aesthetic factors to serve as the basis for design. I teach the design students to use observational and interview methods derived from psychological research to find out how people really use space. This is particularly important in the design of schools, hospitals, residential communities for the elderly and other projects where people are under high levels of stress. Although this may seem obvious to a psychologist, I realized that the needs of users are often neglected by architects and designers, who tend to focus instead on the form and materials of a building.

It was within the context of teaching that I began to develop the field of design psychology. My knowledge of psychology and human behavior gave me a new way to create spaces for people. For my thesis, I chose to design a pediatric clinic for a minority, low-income population. Based on my background in developmental and community psychology, I developed a series of psychological goals for the design of the clinic. These goals focused on fostering security in the young clients and their parents, fulfilling the staff's needs for specific types of workspaces and equally important private areas. In addition, these goals worked to support the self-esteem of both groups of users by creating a physical environment — the quality of the light, spaces and the choice of materials and artwork — which reflected the level of care and attention the clinic was meant to provide. For this project, I won an award from the Center for Healthcare Design.

In the work leading up to my thesis, I began a collaboration with another psychologist who was also doing design work, Constance Forrest, PsyD. A clinical psychologist with over 20 years of experience, Constance began her design practice by designing her own office, then her colleagues' workspaces, then she moved on to embrace the design of residences and gardens. She uses her clinical interview skills to translate the client's psychological experiences in the environment — both current and historical-into the design elements of color, light, furnishings, materials and arrangement of space. We continue to work together, using these psychology-based interview and analysis techniques to create home, office and landscape environments for our clients.

We recently began a series of research projects that will extend our work with individual clients to larger-scale settings such as workplaces. We have presented our work in design psychology at a variety of professional and association meetings, including APA and the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA). We share this work and the continued development of the field of design psychology with Toby Israel, PhD, an environmental psychologist who created a "Design Insight" paradigm, used to analyze the client's environmental psycho-history to find the seeds of current environmental choices in developmental experiences of the past.

When I graduated from the UCLA program, I resigned from my position at Carleton and began working as an interior designer at AC Martin Partners, a large architecture, planning and engineering firm in downtown Los Angeles. Our firm specializes in large-scale institutional work such as university buildings, courthouses, office buildings, correctional facilities and churches. Not expected in a design career, my background in psychology has led me to play a variety of roles in the firm. In addition to creating interior spaces which respect the psychological needs of the users of our buildings, I work specifically in the programming phase of a project, interviewing users to gather information about the client's space needs — the numbers, sizes and functions of offices, classrooms, conference rooms, labs, etc. — to be incorporated into the architectural design.

My knowledge of human behavior has recently led me to look at design from a larger perspective, by working with the Urban Design and Planning Department. My ability to analyze space from a psychological point of view is valuable when it comes to interviewing clients, developing patterns for pedestrian and vehicle access, and creating areas for living, working, and gathering for campus master plans and new urban developments.

My career in design psychology, entirely self-created, is a mixture of practice, teaching and research. My daily life is infinitely varied, and though sometimes exhausting, is never boring.

(Originally published in the November/December 2000 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)