How to Become a Design Psychologist – Schooling and Career Guide [2024]

Sometimes, you walk into a room and you immediately feel at home. Other times, you enter a space and it feels impersonal, cold, and maybe even sterile. Perhaps you can pinpoint one or two things that make the difference between such different feelings – a paint color or the height of the ceilings, for example.

But by and large, most people only recognize that a space is or isn’t comforting, but can’t quite put their finger on why that is. Though the way that a space feels has a lot to do with principles of construction, interior design, color theory, lighting, and architecture, there are also psychological principles at work.

That means that there is an entire field of study dedicated to understanding how the principles of design and the principles of psychology intersect and how they can be used to improve how people live, work, and even how they feel.

What is Design Psychology?

Design psychology can be defined as the practice of using psychology to make decisions regarding architecture, interior design, and space planning. It is a fairly new discipline, but one that has close ties to other areas of psychology, particularly human factors psychology, environmental psychology, and industrial-organizational psychology. Naturally, design psychology also has close ties with the fields of architecture and interior design as well.

What Does a Design Psychologist Do?

A design psychologist strives to help people design spaces – homes, offices, and so forth – that enhance their relationship to their surroundings. In that regard, design psychologists use the principles outlined above – architecture, interior design, and space planning – as well as teaming up with professionals in those fields to explore the ways in which living and working spaces can be maximized.

Design psychology isn’t just about designing spaces that allow for people to improve their family functioning or work environment. Instead, design psychologists also seek to study, examine, and explain how one’s surroundings impact their behavior in the first place.

For example, a design psychologist might explore the topic of small spaces and how to design them in a way that helps prevent people that live or work in small spaces from feeling claustrophobic. This might entail designing a light color palate to brighten up the space or working with designers to ensure the space has tall ceilings and a lot of natural light, both of which help small spaces to feel much larger.

Additionally, design psychologists work to create spaces that elicit positive emotional responses from people that utilize those spaces. This might take the form of designing more aesthetically pleasing work environments in order to promote improved worker productivity. As noted earlier, it might also involve working on designing home spaces that enhance the openness and brightness of the space to prevent feelings of being closed in.

These principles can even be used in a therapeutic setting as well. For example, a design psychologist might work with a counseling psychologist or psychiatrist to design a therapy space that’s comforting, warm, and calming. These sort of features are obviously helpful for a space in which patients work through difficult life events with their therapist.

There is a practical side to design psychology as applied to larger systems, too. For example, a design psychologist might consult with an urban planner to provide insights into how to move people in the most efficient manner. This is important for designing spaces like train stations and airports, as well as designing crosswalk systems, highway systems, intersections, and so forth.

Why Do We Need Design Psychologists?

We need design psychologists because the spaces in which we live and work are not just utilitarian. Instead, the spaces we surround ourselves with can have a marked impact on our mood and emotions and on the way that we experience day-to-day life.

This is an extremely important point, especially for individuals that have some sort of mental, emotional, or behavioral illness. That is, what we’ve come to expect in terms of design in hospitals, mental institutions, and mental health clinics is something very sterile and unwelcoming.

However, design psychologists can change that and create spaces that help facilitate improved mental and emotional health through simple techniques like the color of paint, the type of furniture, and the type and quantity of lighting in a space. And as noted above, design psychologists can even help streamline the way that we move both as pedestrians and as part of motorized transport.

Where Do Design Psychologists Work?

Like many other psychologists, design psychologists can work in a wide variety of fields. Some, for example, choose to work in private practice, where they might consult with individual clients, organizations, or even government entities to provide their services to improve the relationship between people and their surroundings.

The advantage of working in private practice is that the pay is typically higher and one can choose the hours they work. The drawback, of course, is that being self-employed means being responsible for everything from managing the books to hiring employees to marketing the business to the buying public.

Another area where design psychologists work is in the research and development sector. Here, design psychologists usually work in more of a lab-based capacity, developing hypotheses, devising experiments, and conducting research on topics related to this field. For example, a company that specializes in creating products for interior design might hire a design psychologist to study different colors, textures, and patterns and how they impact how someone feels or how they behave.

Some design psychologists also work in the education sector, particularly at the collegiate level. In that environment, design psychologists would be expected not only to teach courses in design psychology but likely also to conduct original research for publication.

What is a Design Psychology Degree?

Since design psychology is all about using psychology to design indoor and outdoor spaces, the coursework in a design psychology degree program tends to focus on environmental psychology, human factors psychology, and even industrial-organizational psychology. These courses are designed to help students develop an understanding not just of individual human behavior but also how the environment and man-made institutions influence how we behave.

These courses would build upon the basic psychology courses taken in a typical undergraduate psychology program. Once in a master’s program – and later in a doctorate program, if desired – students would begin to build a deeper understanding of how psychology can be used to design spaces and objects.

For example, design psychology degree programs typically have components that include studies of architecture, space planning, interior design, and so forth. Again, this is to help inform students of the interrelationship between how people behave and feel and the surroundings in which they find themselves.

As another example, students in a design psychology program might learn how the color and intensity of overhead lighting can impact not just a person’s mood but also their productivity. Given an understanding of those factors, students could design home or business spaces that make people feel comfortable, happy, and productive.

Like other degrees in psychology, to be a design psychologist, you typically must have at least a master’s degree, if not a doctorate. That means that design psychology degree programs are usually 2-3 years of graduate study after the completion of a bachelor’s degree in a related field, and then another 3-5 years of post-graduate study if a doctorate is desired.

What are the Requirements to Become a Design Psychologist?

Educational Requirements

If you’d like to be a design psychologist, you need to start by obtaining a bachelor’s degree in a related field. A good place to start would be a major in psychology with a minor in architecture or interior design. Bachelor’s degree programs in psychology usually require about 120 credit hours of coursework that typically takes four years to complete.

In the course of study, students are challenged to develop strong interpersonal communication skills, develop an understanding of human behavior and how it can be manipulated, and how to conduct proper scientific research.

More specifically, students would be expected to take courses in general psychology, the psychology of learning, the history of psychology, biological psychology, and introductory coursework in environmental psychology or industrial-organizational psychology.

To open up the most job opportunities in this field, one must complete either a master’s degree, or even better, a doctoral program. Master’s programs give students advanced opportunities to develop the knowledge and skills required to be a design psychologist.

Specifically, programs in environmental psychology would be recommended as it is a discipline that is most closely related to design psychology and because design psychology programs are so rare.

Environmental psychology graduate programs might take just a year or two to complete, or they might require three or four years to finish depending on the number of credit hours required. At the master’s level, students might study topics like research psychology, environmental psychology, and environmental science, with extended learning opportunities in design-related fields as well.

Doctoral programs in this area are not common, but there are closely related disciplines like environmental psychology and human factors psychology that offer a close substitute.

Studies at the doctoral level shift from classroom-based learning to more professional and practical learning experiences. Some programs focus heavily on conducting research while others focus on getting students practical experience through internships or fellowships.

Doctoral programs vary widely in terms of the length of the program and the number of courses that are required. Likewise, the topics of study vary depending on the specialty. Nevertheless, most doctoral programs require three to five years to complete after the completion of a master’s degree.

Licensing Requirements

At this point in time, there are no specific requirements for licensure as a design psychologist. However, depending on the state in which one works, there might be state or local requirements for licensure or certification as a psychologist in general. Typically, licensure is only required if one will be working directly with clients, much as a design psychologist that works in private practice would do.

It’s prudent to check with local or state licensing boards to determine if licensure is required. If it’s necessary to be licensed or certified, the process usually involves a lot of paperwork to document your educational and work histories, taking a competency exam, and completing a specified number of hours of work under the supervision of an experienced psychologist.

What Does it Take to be a Design Psychologist?

If you’re interested in becoming a design psychologist, it’s helpful if you have some of the following personality traits and skills:

  • Empathy – Design psychologists might not work with clients in the traditional therapeutic sense, however, they still need to have the ability to put themselves in others’ shoes to better understand how they can help someone overcome difficulties in their lives through better design.
  • Communication skills – Not only to design psychologists need to be able to listen effectively to hear what others are saying, but they also need to be able to have strong written and verbal communication skills.
  • Spatial skills – Workers in this field must be able to imagine spaces in the abstract. Having strong spatial skills will help design psychologists understand the relationship between objects within a space as well as how people interact with one another within that space.
  • An eye for aesthetics – Because much of a design psychologist’s job is helping to design spaces that are visually appealing, it’s necessary to have an understanding of basic design skills as they pertain to architecture, interior design, product design, and so forth.
  • Detail oriented – Both design and psychology rely on an astute sense of detail. This includes, but is not limited to, having strong mathematics skills for designing and developing spaces.
  • Creativity – Given the scope of work, it’s helpful for design psychologists to have strong creative skills that help them address problems in a particular space in unique and effective ways.

How Much Does a Design Psychologist Make?

Because design psychology is a fairly new field with relatively few workers, it’s difficult to provide precise insights into the income potential this field offers. Having said that, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that psychologists (irrespective of their areas of specialty) make an average of $106,420 per year.

A closer examination of income statistics shows that some subfields of psychology offer higher average annual wages. In fact, industrial-organizational psychology, which is a field closely aligned with design psychology, offers an average annual salary of $87,100. It stands to reason that design psychologists could expect an average annual salary in the same range as well.

It’s important to note that the pay for this field of work is heavily dependent upon several factors. That includes one’s educational level, the geographic area in which they work, and the work setting, to name a few.

What Careers are Similar to Design Psychology?

As noted earlier, because design psychology incorporates the principles of many different fields of work, there are a number of careers that offer a similar work experience. These include:

Human Factors Psychologist

Human factors psychologists, not unlike design psychologists, study how people utilize the spaces around them and how they interact with products and technologies in their home and work spaces. Human factors psychologists explore how to improve spaces, tools, and systems such that people can lead more efficient and satisfying lives.

Industrial-Organizational Psychologist

Industrial-organizational psychologists concentrate their efforts on studying how people behave in the work place. In that regard, they tackle many of the same issues as design psychologists, but specific to workplace and organizational settings. In particular, they seek to understand how individual and group behavior develops within an organization and using that knowledge to help minimize problems at work and improve the overall functioning of the organization itself.

Environmental Psychologist

Environmental psychologists study the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and emotions and the physical spaces in which we live, work and play. In that regard, environmental psychology is quite closely aligned with design psychology because both disciplines seek to use architecture, design, and planning tools to create spaces that are comfortable, harmonious, and even therapeutic.

Interior Designer

Like design psychologists, interior designers work to create spaces that not only look good but also function well. This might include improving the functionality of a space by rearranging walls, improving the flow of people through a space through space planning, or selecting furniture, draperies, and other accessories to enhance the look and feel of a room. Additionally, interior designers often use basic principles of psychology to improve the design of their spaces, such as using color theory to select paint colors that trigger (or suppress) certain moods.

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