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This article (and audio segment) is about how technical “actual” interior design can be and how the pop-culture vision of the design process skips out on some really cool stuff. Get ready for some surprises.

Most people look at interior design as classic example of a primarily “creative” career — it’s all about creating a space that looks good, right?

Well, kinda.

Where many raised-on-home-improvement people like myself initially assume that the job of an interior designer is essentially synonymous with the job of an interior decorator (and, let’s be honest, the “interior design personalities” on the internet do a lot to cloud the distinction), the reality is a bit different.

Yes, it involves a deep understanding of art fundamentals and creative principles, but when you look at where those creative skills fit into the overarching industry process, they’re only a small part of it.

For every step that relies on 3D modeling, material reference databases, and mood boards, there are another 10 steps built on environmental psychology, cognitive science, and good old engineering. The end result might be presented as a creative solution, but the work itself hinges on some really technical know-how.

If you’ve ever wondered how the way we present our spaces connects with the (often weird) ways we use them, and how good interior designers use our psychological relationships with the spaces we spend a lot of time in to make people feel comfortable, productive, or reserved, then you’re reading the right article.

Let’s dig in.

Going Back to College: What an Interior Design Curriculum Really Looks Like

Everyone knows someone who is really good at “that HGTV stuff.” Whole generations have been raised on the channel.

So what’s the difference between these design naturals we hear about (and follow obsessively on Pinterest) and the people who go to college and rack up a bunch of debt for it?

The difference is research.

Once you weed out the generic diploma-mill curricula that assume interior design starts and ends with art fundamentals and an intro to textiles course (with a sprinkling of painfully outdated pop psychology), you’ll find that there are two main academic branches for interior design:

  1. Programs that apply established research to design obstacles.
  2. Programs that use design obstacles to expand the research scope of interior design.

Baccalaureate programs progress from art fundamentals to practical limitations (building code, material limits, ergonomics, and usage-driven design, etc.), while MA and MFA programs widen the research scope and double down on internships and studio hours.

At the MS/MSD and PhD levels, however, things get interesting. Interdisciplinary research is the primary focus. Students in these programs have already completed their industry tour, and the curriculum shifts from studio hours and projects to research methodologies and research-in-application theory.

Which means that the big difference between that designer your mother-in-law knows (who you need to talk to, clearly) and the designers who set the standards in commercial and institutional design is more than a matter of taste, portfolio, and scale.

The difference is the resources they rely on when designing a space.

Environmental psychology is an interdisciplinary field that examines how the mind interprets (and responds to) space. The houses we live in, the cars we commute in, the courtrooms we’re arraigned in—all of these environments communicate more information to us than we’re consciously aware of.

To the interior designer, this nonconscious communication is critically important. By figuring out how consistent, intense, and memorable environmental information is, a designer can translate general notions of aesthetics into specific notions of impact and efficacy.

Human factors and ergonomics (HF&E) is the wordy cross-category for work that investigates how humans work. It specifically combines psychology, ergonomics, cognitive science, and engineering to study and improve the relationship between humans and complex systems.

HF&E applies to both large-scale interior design and residential interior design, as it helps designers attach usability and ergonomic metrics to what may otherwise seem to be arbitrary factors. Within this umbrella category, cognitive ergonomics is especially applicable; the framework scales.

Usability engineering is UX’s big brother, and many of the core movers and shakers in the usability engineering space contribute to UX theory. Viewable as both a narrow slice of the prior fields and as an intersectional category that contains those fields, it contributes an object-by-object understanding of how objects that belong to a space function within that space.

When it comes to building a better living room, usability engineering is the best counterpoint to the sacrifices of aesthetics. For the interior designer, this gives them a tool for finding the balance point between the impractical dream designs that so many clients want and the ruthlessly efficient environments that the engineering department would prefer.

Interior design is surprisingly technical, because it applies a diverse set of rigorous academic and conceptual fields to something that many people take for granted. It’s about understanding our environments, not throw pillows or the long and painful slide into being confused for Ted Mosby.

Interior Design Is UX, But Real

UX is a Big Topic right now because it’s accessible. We look at technology as a tool, and the idea that we need to design our tools in a way that fits our brains is reasonable enough that most people will humor the debate.

Knowing, then, that the resources interior designers rely on have been authored or influenced by some of the big names in UX, it’s easier to see how this all fits together.

Writing fiction, designing board games, and working in interior design all belong in the same conversation for a very simple reason:

They all require an understanding of how the mind navigates information and an understanding of how the right work in the right place can make that information even more effective.

The tripping point, of course, is substantiating the “information” that’s communicated in interior design. After all, there isn’t a story, a table of values, or a set of potential actions that you’re trying to interpret. You just want a living room you’re comfortable in.

But what visual information are you relying on to interpret a room as comfortable or uncomfortable?

When you’re designing an interior, you’re combining the client survey techniques from UX and HF&E with architectural, functional, and psychological reference points to map out how the client behaves within a space, and then connecting that information with their aesthetic desires and frustrations.

The information involved in this process isn’t necessarily subconscious, but a lot of it is nonconscious. It operates on the cognitive and precognitive layers, as impacted by attentional bias and affect.

To that end, the conversations about color, space, depth, visual and navigational complexity, functionality, and so on aren’t just for the benefit of aesthetics. Those conversations also apply to how we categorize, integrate with, modify, and interpret our environments.

The spaces we don’t like aren’t just subjectively ugly; they also posses some degree of dysfunction that is reflected in how we cognitively engage with those spaces. Our ability to stay organized, utilize our working memory, express our emotions, and make rational decisions are affected by these design choices.

That’s the difference between the HGTV approach and what academic designers are working on.

What This Gibberish Means for Your Living Room

You can theoretically walk through this model in virtual reality. If you really want to.

Instead of diving even deeper into the science side of interior design (or, worse yet, trying to simplify 10 different fields of research to give you a pop-psychology takeaway), let’s lighten things up. Good interior design might be driven by a lot of really boring work, but that doesn’t mean you need to delete your Pinterest account.

Here’s a quick exercise:

Pretend furniture doesn’t exist and that all spaces are arbitrary. Walk through your house or apartment like you’re seeing it, and everything in it, for the first time.

How would you use the space?

The HGTV Problem

Nothing say’s “I saw this on TV” like fabrics too ugly for the bargain bin.

The usual answer to “I want to totally redesign this space” is to figure out what styles you like, mash them all together on a reference board, and then produce a painfully inaccurate pastiche of your own tastes while only paying attention to your too-large-to-miss pain points and spacial dysfunctions.

In front of a TV camera.

Alright, alright, that’s a bit harsh. I make fun of “HGTV designers” and residential design personalities because they’re an easy target. Most of them manage to make their customers happy, and that’s the real goal here.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the content these designers rely on to sell contracts and products isn’t necessarily the stuff you want to bring into your own home, and that a lot of meaningful information is lost in the gap between their marketing content and what you actually need.

You see, the content that gets the best traction for these designers is some kind of staged shot of a finished design that’s often monetized through product placement and affiliate deals. The problem with this visuals-first approach is that it doesn’t demonstrate a significant problem-solving ability, and it typically fails to address unique or significant usage patterns.

The end result of this is marketing content that either a) follows usage conventions so closely that it fails the livability test, or b) usurps fundamental usage patterns in order to look interesting or creative. The content can work as inspiration, but there’s a difference between beautiful designs and beautifully functional designs.

That’s where our earlier experiment—and the idea of designing to communicate—comes in. There’s a difference between designing a space with a comfortable aesthetic and one that makes you, specifically, comfortable.

The design surveys you see on TV and the “problem-solving” content marketing that most people are exposed to do a really bad job of addressing this specific issue. This also happens to be where a lot of the interdisciplinary work that goes into commercial and institutional design applies to residential work:

  • Asking the right questions,
  • Identifying important usage patterns,
  • Compromising on conventions, and
  • Restraining the design into a believable and deliverable scope.

Understanding Residential Flow

I, uh, have a thing for shelves.

This is a model of my apartment that I made in less than an hour, because sharing the one I put 18 hours into with a bunch of internet strangers crosses a creep threshold I just discovered.

It’s small, it’s sucky, and it was wired by a blithering idiot who doesn’t understand building codes.

When you’re looking at how to remodel a house, or even just refurnish a room, this perspective can serve as a really great starting point. Instead of starting with inspirational references, vision boards, highlight pieces, or a color wheel, start with a top-down floor plan and an estimate of your traffic flow.

Here’s that second bit:

This is a quick-and-dirty breakdown of how I move through my apartment. Since I work from home and live in a small apartment, I spent a lot of time pacing around this place. I practically live at my desk, and just about anything that I do in my living room gets sucked into its gravity.

In fact, so much of my time is concentrated into that thin horseshoe path that runs from my desk to my kitchen counter that the rest of the space is underutilized, and too many activities are crammed into the same locations with the same bad postures. From a design perspective, that’s something I need to address.

Bringing in the Analysis

Using a user survey on myself, I know that many of the things that I “want” to do in other parts of the apartment end up happening within the bounds of that usage map instead. I know that my pain points include a lack of working space in my storage areas and the frequency at which things end up on the floor because there isn’t adequate storage.

Looking at aesthetic preferences through a cognitive lens, I like minimalist designs and minimal patterns because they make environments easier to mentally navigate. I don’t handle visual noise very well, and I need systems that help me stay organized.

This means I’ll occasionally need to sacrifice the aesthetic itself to emphasize practical elements to manage the visual noise I’m actually responding to with these preferences.

I rearrange really frequently. Like, I’ll totally rearrange my living room at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday just because I’m waiting on an email and I’m sick of sitting at a desk. Furniture choices that minimize interaction costs along this vector would be ideal, as I need to be able to move things in order to think. To an absurd degree, at times.

Now imagine that you’re the interior designer and I’m a client who doesn’t know the discourse or how to describe anything beyond obvious pain points and aesthetic preferences.

How would you discover this if you didn’t use the surprisingly technical survey and design process?

“Surprisingly Technical” Interior Design Is Subtle

The inspiration-driven interior design cycle is reactionary and unnecessarily trend driven, as it relies on novelty to trigger need recognition and fails to provide a framework for clients who aren’t up on the discourse.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the science-y route produces visually startling or unexpected results; good design goes unseen most of the time. Whenever you find yourself in a space where you know what to do without having to rely on overt signaling or prior briefing, it’s because of the science-y stuff.

In the case of my apartment example, the solution is similarly simple and subtle:

Yes, I really do need that many shelves. Not because I need to store things. I just need shelves.

I need a reading nook in my kitchen!

Since my kitchen table is chronically underutilized, and I need to separate my activities between the existing rooms in more effective ways, offloading and expanding storage space and activity space into the kitchen is an easy solution.

By replacing my (damn small) kitchen table with a folding table and adding a comfortable reading chair, lamp, and small bookshelf, I can separate my activities more efficiently, retain (and even improve) the amount of working space I have in my kitchen, and reduce the visual clutter in my living room to align it better with my aesthetic preferences.

This is better (for me) than trying to push the reading nook into my bedroom, as that’s a space that I consider to be strictly single-use. My adventures with insomnia have taught me that working or relaxing where I sleep is a recipe for too much coffee and too many typos.

The design scope of this example is fairly conservative. As the size, usage diversity, and occupancy of a house increases, your opportunities for weird/unique/unconventional solutions increase in step (until you hit an upper boundary where a need for institutional standardization begins) and are influenced by how wonky or normal the residents might be.

My goal house has a kitchen in the garage and tile in the bedroom. Just sayin’.

This is just the tip of the “what interior design actually looks like” iceberg. The conversation gains complexity along multiple vectors—technical, cultural, psychological, ecological; it’s an amazingly intersectional field—which all merit their own explorations.

Meanwhile, the basic idea that UX principles and human-driven design can flip the at-home conversation on its head is indescribably useful. A lot of designers are putting out interesting concepts and inspiration pieces, and the application of the principles we’ve covered in this article can help you translate their work into something you can use.

And the best bit? No Pinterest catastrophes.

The next article will take a look at a classic topic: music. We all know that music can be incredibly technical, but what makes it surprisingly technical? Let’s find out.