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Susan Painter, PhD, an associate at the Los Angeles architectural firm AC Martin Partners and a co-owner of her own design firm, spends her days thinking about design--from the best layout for a college campus to the best furnishings for a psychologist's office. This is not the career she envisioned when she received her doctorate in developmental psychology in 1980.

But in 1990, after rising through the academic ranks to become tenured associate psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, she decided to explore a lifelong interest in design. She left her faculty position and enrolled in the University of California, Los Angeles interior/environmental design program. After graduation in 1991, she began working as an interior designer. But traditional interior design, with its emphasis on pure aesthetics rather than human use of space, left her inner psychologist frustrated.

Now, she says, her job as an urban and campus planner at AC Martin allows her to combine the disparate parts of her background into a new field: design psychology. As she designs campuses and interior spaces, she thinks about the experience, needs and behavior of the people who will use the space.

Painter also works with her sister and fellow design psychologist, Constance Forrest, PsyD, to design smaller-scale spaces like offices and private homes through their firm ForrestPainter Design, in Venice, California. Forrest, a clinical psychologist, first became interested in the psychology of design when designing her own office for her private practice.

"I think the unique contribution that design psychology makes to design," she says, "is that it recognizes the critical contribution emotion makes to people's response to a space."

Evolutionary links and individual needs

That response exists on both the general and the individual levels. The general human response to the physical environment, Painter says, is both powerful and inextricably linked to our evolutionary history--what she calls "the aesthetics of survival." In order to survive, our early ancestors needed both a "refuge"--a safe place to eat, sleep and take care of young--and a "prospect"--a view out over a long distance to see both predator and prey. This preference for refuge and prospect continues in the contemporary world, she says: Everyone wants an office with a window. Painter sees the edge, or the area between the refuge and the prospect, as prime social space; people tend to gather at sidewalk cafes, porches and steps.

Painter takes considerations like these into account as she designs campuses and other public spaces. At California State University, Northridge, AC Martin Partners is helping redevelop the campus after the 6.7 magnitude 1994 Northridge earthquake wiped out or damaged every one of the campus buildings. Despite rebuilding efforts, a lot of empty space has remained between the buildings--too much empty space, Painter says.

"We need to think about creating more edges and boundaries," she explains, "because there's a sense of security and comfort in having exterior spaces enclosed." Designers use building edges or landscape elements like plantings, water or tall trees to create those edges and boundaries.

In their work on smaller-scale projects like homes and professional offices, Painter and Forrest explore their clients' individual responses to design. Forrest has developed a three-part series of interview tools, adapted from psychological assessment, that the two use to learn about their clients' relationships with the environment.

Just as early childhood experiences of relationships have a formative effect on development, Forrest explains, early experiences of physical spaces leave a powerful imprint as well. UCLA psychologist Allan Schore, PhD, Forrest's mentor in the field of neurobiology, calls this imprinting "experience-dependent maturation."

"The visual-spatial system is located in the right limbic brain--the same part of the brain that deals with both emotional response and relationship," Forrest says.

Neurobiologists' work has shown that neurons firing in proximity to one another bind experiences together, she says, and so a person's cognitive experiences, the emotions accompanying them, and the settings in which they take place are encoded together in memory. So buildings and rooms that recreate critical aspects of places where "high-positive" experiences occurred will trigger the sense of security, serenity or even joy that those memories evoke.

Forrest begins her assessments by getting a "developmental history of place" from her clients--a description of all the places they have ever lived and the most formative things that happened in those places.

Next, she does what she calls a "favorite place" exercise, which draws on hypnotherapy. She has clients relax and begin thinking of all the places they have ever been, like watching a movie of their life, and then stop at the place where they felt their absolute best. She asks the client to describe the physical attributes of that space--the color, light, texture, shadows, sound, scents.

In a third exercise, based on projective techniques, she asks the client to describe his or her five most-loved objects and talk about the qualities--aesthetic or emotional--that make each one important.

Forrest and Painter then incorporate aspects of the areas where high-positive experiences took place into their final design. In her own office, for example, Forrest painted the walls of a windowless waiting room with a high-sheen soft yellow paint, and arranged the lighting to recall the way light in her aunt's house flooded through the translucent roof of a porch into the living room.

Research directions

Forrest and Painter rely on both theoretical and research-based ideas from psychology and design. Now, due to their background in developmental and clinical psychology, they are particularly interested in designing for infants. Since the majority of brain development happens post-natally, an infant's experience of the physical world is especially formative, Painter says.

In general, she adds, "The issue of how the brain is involved in people's negotiations with the physical environment is something that we're just beginning to learn about."

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques--for determining which parts of the brain are activated by different types of experience--are improving all the time. Someday, she says, researchers may be able to follow people's brain activity as they navigate the physical world and see first hand what elicits experiences of beauty, joy, competence or creativity.

In the meantime, though, there is simpler research to be done. Painter and her colleagues at AC Martin Partners, for example, are re-designing a plaza between two office buildings in downtown Los Angeles. They've set up a webcam so they can see how office workers' use of this outdoor space varies as the designers try out various arrangements for tables, benches and chairs. Eventually, they'll set up permanent furnishings in the configuration that best encourages people to use the courtyard. The research, Painter says, is based on the work of urban scholar William H. Whyte, whose studies of pedestrian behavior in cities led to a new way of analyzing and creating user-oriented urban design. "Rather than just trying to arrange seating and other elements to fill up the space, this is a way to look at the design behaviorally," Painter says.