Decor & Styling

Design Psychology: 5 Ways to Create a More Meaningful Space


You know that feeling you get when you step into a potential home and immediately sense it’s the right one—that “YES! This is it!” feeling? Or maybe you’ve had a much less ecstatic but equally impactful reaction—“OK, I’m done.” And it all happens within five seconds of seeing the place. You may not even be fully aware of what it is about the space that makes you so sure about it, you just know. When I walked into my house for the first time, my immediate thought was, this feels like home. I didn’t know what made me feel that way, I just felt it, as outdated and in disrepair as it was (it was built in the 60s and looked like it was still there). While it may seem I was having some way out experience, there is actually a logical explanation for it.

Emotions can trigger associations with certain places, and places can trigger emotions, many times below our level of conscious awareness.

Design psychologists (psychologists who specialize in interior design and use psychology as a tool in the design process) have actually been studying this phenomenon for quite some time, and concluded that it is a neurologically based reaction. Without getting too techy, our thoughts, emotions, and the physical places associated with them are encoded together in memory. So much so that emotions can trigger associations with certain places, and places can trigger emotions, many times below our level of conscious awareness.

My current home had a very lived in feel to it, much similar to the home I was raised in. So there was a familiarity that made me feel comfortable and triggered an emotional connection to the space. This is what design psychologists try to do in their work—create spaces that trigger high, positive associations for people. It really does make a space more meaningful, and has all sorts of implications for emotional well-being.

You may not have access to a design psychologist, but if you start with these tips taken from the design psychology toolbox, you can be on your way to creating a space that’s much more than pretty.

1. Know Your Vision.

What’s the vision for your space? I mean, what is it that you want your space to convey: warmth and relaxation, bright and cheerful, sophisticated and glamorous? Or maybe you’re just not sure. If so, don’t worry. Sometimes a trip down memory lane is all you need to wake up your senses and get your creative spices popping.

One of the ways to do that is to think about the space you want to (re) decorate (e.g., kitchen, bedroom, bathroom) and draw a timeline of all the spaces like it you’ve experienced from birth until now.

Then jot down the qualities you like most about any of the spaces and use those qualities to create your ideal space vision statement. Your statement may be elaborate or something as simple as, “I want a kitchen space that is modern, cheerful, and inviting.”

Create a space that is unique to you. Don’t be over reliant on trends that quickly come and go.

Once you have your vision statement, use it to guide the physical details of the space like layout, colors, and furniture. This streamlines the design process, and allows you to create a space that is unique to you, so you don’t have to be over reliant on trends that quickly come and go. Ultimately, your ideal vision for the space should reflect all the feel goods you had in similar spaces, and strengthen the bond you have with your home.

2. Meet Your Needs.

If you’ve ever taken psychology 101, you’ve probably heard about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Those are all the conditions necessary for us to be most fully ourselves—our most self-actualized selves. And design psychologists adapted this idea to create a self-actualized place that includes basic needs such as shelter and safety, to more sophisticated ones like psychological needs (e.g., self-expression, love), social needs (e.g., privacy, togetherness) , and, of course, aesthetic needs (e.g., beauty, pleasure).  If your space is lucky enough to have all these components, then you are said to have a self-actualized place, one that is most emotionally satisfying.

So as you begin to consider the details of the space, make sure all these higher level needs are met. That is, beyond the basic needs, think about how you can decorate your space in a way that offers the highest form of self-expression (psychological satisfaction), meets your desire for privacy and/or togetherness (social satisfaction), and appeals to your sense of style (aesthetic satisfaction).

If you’re having trouble clarifying how to meet those needs in your space, sometimes it helps to think about how these specific needs have been met in other spaces you’ve experienced. Or even how you’ve met these needs in other areas where you’ve had to be similarly creative. For instance, the way you dress certainly has both a psychological and aesthetic component, and can really inform how you decorate your space. I know I like to wear classic pieces with a little bit of something unexpected or unique to spice it up a bit and I like that sort of twist in my décor too.

When you start to become more attuned to what you need, you may find yourself adjusting your vision statement slightly to include them, which is perfectly fine as you will probably adjust your vision statement several times before you get it right.

 It’s about capturing the essence of cherished objects rather than trying to duplicate them.

3. Pick Favorites.

Still at a loss for what types of pictures to choose, and furniture, and wallpaper…the list goes on? Don’t worry, there’s a tool for that. Consider all the objects you have in your possession that hold special significance to you and identify the reasons. Maybe it’s a special chair or piece of jewelry that you had in your home growing up. Whatever it is, consider how you can emulate those same feel good vibes from the objects in your current space. If an emerald green lacquered jewelry box holds special meaning to you, maybe you can replicate those same finishes elsewhere.

But as you use your past to inform the design of your current space, be careful to avoid any urge to make past spaces look like the current one. Using your past is not the same as living in your past, and most of us don’t want a home to look like it was stuck in another decade. It’s more about capturing the essence of those cherished objects rather than trying to duplicate those objects themselves. So if you grew up in a home with a lot of stuff in it (like me), and want to create the comfy, warm feeling those things created (without having a home that feels cluttered), think of different ways to capture warmth and comfort with texture, colors, and styling.

4. Get Rid of What’s Not Working.

If you’re working on creating a home that reflects the essence of your favorite objects from your past, you may also need to get rid of all those objects that do not add any meaningful value to your space. This is a difficult one for me because I am the queen of holding on. I put so many things away from previous houses with the intention of using them again. But my tastes change and I often lose interest in those things I’ve put away. A good rule of thumb is to consider what you would miss if you lost your stuff in a natural disaster. It’s dramatic I know, but if you can envision a whole new space without those things you haven’t been using anyway, then they’re probably a good candid for goodwill, resale at the flea, or any other way you’d like to dispose of it.

5. Keep it Fresh.

Design psychology might seem like it only focuses on the past, but designing a space that fits not just your current needs but future ones as well is just as important. Most people go to designers when they’re in a period of transition, and so your space shouldn’t just reflect where you’ve been or where you are, but also where you hope to go and who you would like to be. Rooms that have the right amount of novelty and stimulation exude a freshness that gives a home energy. So if your space is feeling a little too status quo, trying using furniture that can be easily moved, or abstract patterned wallpaper or art—the kind where you see something new every time you look at it, or even just switch out your wall art. These are simple ideas that can help you create a sense of newness, and perhaps support the growth you’d like to see in yourself.

These are just a few ways to invigorate your home—perhaps you have some of your own. What ways do you give meaning to your space? Share in the comments below.