Psychology as a Design Tool?

By Jesse Miller

bcFELLOWs declare a public interest area for study. Themes such as density, connectivity, public space, practice, equity or others are explored.  Over the course of the fellowship year, each Fellow will share discoveries made during their investigations with final work published for public benefit.

Psychology as a design tool

What tools can architects develop through research on psychology and social issues to more deeply understand clients and context, and to better address social problems? How can architects better work toward addressing social problems? By more deeply understanding and engaging clients and context.

How can architects acquire the necessary knowledge to do that? Research common social problems and how people react to environments.

The spark for this inquiry occurred while I was attending an Americorps VISTA pre-service orientation, a series of discussions on VISTA’s mission to fight poverty. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was the topic of one session. We discussed how some needs (such as love or self esteem) are not able to be met until others are satisfied (such as hunger or security). Many of us present were familiar with this concept but had not considered how it could be used as a tool in our work. I began to wonder if researching psychology might help develop tools that would strengthen architecture. Specifically architecture that aims to address social problems, a focus that is part of the growing field known as Public Interest Design.

Perhaps the increasing enthusiasm for Public Interest Design can be attributed to its use of a more inclusive approach to solving common social problems. The traditional patronage model, or “what-the-client-wants” approach, is being altered to include the question: What will best benefit the surrounding community and public at large? To work in such a way necessitates a skill set that requires an understanding of how people live, think, and relate to their environment.

This inquiry will be guided by many sources including literature on motivation theory, group relations theory, and social issues. Existing community engagement toolkits, project evaluation tools, and social worker training guides will illustrate what other groups have already determined to be best practices. Discussions with Dallas community groups, non-profits, and architecture firms with a stated commitment to the public interest will provide a local context. The outcome of this inquiry is a yet-to-be-determined set of tools and knowledge that will inform and complement how an architect can work.

Studying psychology and social issues opens opportunities to add a skill set to architecture. It adds evaluation tools, adds value to work, and adds integrity to the profession. All while better enabling architects and communities to do work that is more rewarding. Jesse Miller, a 2012 bcFELLOW, hails from Indiana and enjoys bicycles, growing food, continuously learning, and inclusive design.