Good, Thoughtful Hosts #110: Psychology in Architecture with Joel Anderson

We’re chatting with Cushing Terrell Design Director and architect Joel Anderson about how psychology is used in design. We’ll focus on how to incorporate four elements in particular: coherence, complexity, legibility, and mystery — and how when any one of those pieces is missing, it can make the space feel out of sorts. We use environmental cues to move people through a space, but we must also learn about a user’s environmental preferences and respond to them.

About Our Guest

Joel’s design work focuses on sustainability, context, and culture, and his experience spans a variety of building typologies. Currently, he co-leads Cushing Terrell’s R&D program, helping the firm focus on sustainable design goals and actionable progress towards improving the built environment. He regularly guest-teaches and lectures at his alma mater, the Illinois Institute of Technology. Joel’s certifications include AIA, NCARB, and LEED AP BD+C, and he is licensed in seven states.

Episode #110 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer
Have you ever walked into a space and felt like you knew exactly where to go or how to interact with the environment? What you were likely picking up on were environmental cues, which are no accident. It means the space was designed with those motives in mind.

I’m Sarah Steimer and on today’s episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, we’re discussing how architects use psychology in their designs. We’ll explore the importance of incorporating four elements in particular: coherence, complexity, legibility, and mystery — and how when any one of those pieces is missing, it can leave you with the feeling that the space is just… off. So the next time you walk into an office or a store where something doesn’t quite feel right, see if you can put your finger on what may have gone missing in the design process.

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guest:

Joel Anderson 01:19
My name is Joel Anderson. I’m the design director and an architect with Cushing Terrell.

Sarah Steimer 01:26
Okay, so Joel, before we kind of dive into what we are planning on talking about today, I just want to get a little bit more information about what exactly it is that you do and how you have kind of gotten into the psychology behind architecture.

Joel Anderson 01:41
Sure, I lead clients and project teams through the design process of buildings, and bigger projects. And largely, I’ve been engaged in this process for 15, 18 years now. But I’ve been studying with the University of Texas Department of Psychology about environmental psychology, and how it relates to things that we design, and how that space reflects everything else in the world, and how we can kind of shape our buildings to kind of shape culture or allow culture to shape our buildings.

Sarah Steimer 02:21
So before we do get too deep into this, because this is a super… I don’t want to say intense conversation. But there’s a lot to kind of pick out here. You know, we want to talk about environmental cues and environmental preferences. So let’s just start with some definitions. So what are we talking about first, when we talk about environmental cues? And maybe can you give me some examples?

Joel Anderson 02:45
Environmental cues are things that we put into our spaces that kind of signify things that maybe we want our culture or society to react to, in certain ways. I think a great example is a sports team locker room: You may have the home team that has all their awards and, and championships displayed prominently. And then in the visiting clubhouse, they may, you know, paint the clubhouse all black or something else to kind of de-stimulate the opposing team in some sort of competitive advantage. I think that’s a great example of a very clear environmental cue that we give off when we are designing spaces.

Sarah Steimer 03:27
That’s actually, I like that example a lot. So even maybe just like more comfortable chairs in the home team’s locker room. And then you’ve got just like folding chairs for the opposing team. All right, so now let’s talk about environmental preferences, then. So what’s sort of a definition there?

Joel Anderson 03:45
Environmental preferences are, and this is sort of, in the terminology of environmental psychology, the way that we sort of understand and take in environments and how we kind of prefer different things. So it kind of goes along the lines of these ideas of kind of four things: coherence, which is the immediate understanding of how elements in the environment fit together. And then you have complexity, which is things like visual richness, things that can immediately be explored. It’s a certain curiosity to the complexity that draws you in, or its legibility, understanding of what lies ahead, and how we can find our way and not get lost. I think that’s a pretty important piece there. And then the idea of mystery, the promise of new things to explore if moving further into the environment. And so these four — coherence, complexity, legibility, and mystery — really sort of define an environmental preference matrix. And one of the strongest things that research has proven, and it’s difficult to prove research in the field of environmental psychology, is that mystery has proven to be a consistent predictor of environmental preferences. You know, the “curiosity killed the cat” idea lies true within some of the research that’s been done.

Sarah Steimer 05:09
So those are, I mean, I like that you can break that down, those four pieces and I kind of want to go into those just a tiny bit more. Let’s start. So you talked about mystery, I kinda want to start with mystery, because that, to me sounds like the most interesting piece of this, like you said, it’s the promise of new things to be able to explore moving into the environment. What are some examples of how to build mystery into an environment?

Joel Anderson 05:33
One of the easiest ways is to sort of filter things in different ways, visual field, I take, for example, the idea of the forest, that you can kind of, you know, a blurring of trees as you enter into a site. And you can kind of see into the forest a little bit. And there might be nuggets of, hey, there’s a house over here or a lake over here. And that’s going to lead you through the site. Or if it’s in an office space, it’s the idea of maybe walking into the lobby entry, and seeing bits and pieces of things that go on within that company’s business that are intriguing, but you don’t get to see all of it, it kind of leads you into the space. And I think those are the ideas of mystery where it’s something that may be foreign, and unique to you. And it just kind of piques your interest of, hey, I’d like to learn more about that.

Sarah Steimer 06:27
A little bit of a Wizard of Oz component to that appeals. You know, I kind of want to stay with the idea of I mean, we talk a lot on this podcast about designing for the office. So we’ll jump back up to one of the first pieces there that coherence piece. How can you build coherence into an office space, then?

Joel Anderson 06:46
Yeah, but coherence is maybe just some overtone of simplicity, or a theme that overlays everything, so that everything kind of ties together in some sort of way. And that can be done through numerous ways in the design, whether it’s the interior design, or the layout, or materials used, or furniture even. It’s all it’s all part of that. And so the coherence is the sort of pieces that fit together in a way that kind of like that thing of, does the rug tie the room together? That can happen to kind of create coherence.

Sarah Steimer 07:22
Sure, I I’m always happy to get a Big Lebowski reference in. But so, so this, this next piece, so complexity, this is this one is kind of interesting to me just as far as an office space goes, because it seems like complexity isn’t necessarily something that we would want, like, we would want things to be pretty clean, and we like our whitespace and things like that. So how does complexity play a role in designing for the workplace, then?

Joel Anderson 07:48
Complexity, you know, there’s this mindset of things can get too boring, and complexity kind of demonstrates some intelligence or some sort of, you know, notion that things are put together in some sort of unique structural way. It’s visual richness, really. And that’s something that just kind of, lets your mind’s eye transfer its thoughts through whatever it’s visually seeing, it’s providing some stimulation that can kind of create either some inspiration, or jog some memories, or just develop a certain undertone meant in your thoughts or feelings. And these sorts of ideas, you know, lie across a large spectrum of how we comprehend spaces, and different people handle complexity in different ways.

Sarah Steimer 08:34
So the last piece of this puzzle is the legibility piece. And so this in a way almost feels like it works slightly against the mystery. So instead of it being like, oh, what can what can we find through the forest, this is a little bit more of knowing what lies ahead. So let’s talk about legibility in the office space.

Joel Anderson 08:54
Now, legibility is sort of counterintuitive to mystery, and that’s why these kind of all lie on a spectrum of x, y axis. But, you know, some people want to see a path that sort of clear and paved — the road ahead. And you have to kind of show that as well within your design or your space, office space, that you know, there is some logic to the layout, there is some reasoning, and it’s defined, and people can kind of comprehend that in a reasonable way. It’s not completely chaotic. So it’s a strong balance between these four that really provide where you need to go. And it’s difficult. Every designer has the struggle of balancing these with the client’s needs. A lot of clients come to us with different needs, every client is completely different. So balancing out these four items of coherence complexity, legibility and mystery are always a challenge for us as designers.

Sarah Steimer 09:55
Yeah, so I want to get an idea from you too. So if it is about that balance, if it is about trying to make sure that there’s relative evenness, I suppose, between all these four things, what sort of happens to people exploring the space when one of those is a little bit out of whack? Or maybe one of these or two of these are a bit more prevalent than the other two? What effect does that have on the individuals experiencing that space?

Joel Anderson 09:56
Well, it again, it largely depends on the individual, but it’s something you know, if it’s too complex, people will give up, or they just won’t associate with it, they’re gonna lose the true connection. I mean, cues, like we’re talking about environmental cues, they only work if their meaning is related to any sort of primary goal. So if we’re designing, and we’re not designing towards a primary goal of the mind of whatever our client is asking for, they’re not going to understand it, they’re not going to comprehend it. And a loss of comprehension just means a loss of connection to the eye, cultures, identity, all those bits and pieces. And the same goes for if things are completely incoherent, you’ve got the same sort of mess where I don’t understand. You really just can lead people towards confusion, or boredom, or overstimulation. These are things that you kind of don’t want. But you know, that’s good to know where you don’t want to go as a designer just as much as it’s important to know where you do want to go.

Sarah Steimer 11:26
So when you’re using this matrix, I want to maybe better understand how, how this is a tool in your toolbox, I guess. So when you’re sitting down, and maybe you’re trying to figure out what a meeting room should look like things like that? Do you kind of weigh against each one of these pieces and see where it falls on that x,y axis? You know, how, how exactly is this something that you implement as you’re moving forward with a design process?

Joel Anderson 11:56
A lot of times if it’s something just simple, like office or a conference room, there’s bigger questions at hand, like, who is the conference room for? Have I received or have we received the proper feedback in as to where this goes — and feedback can be received through multiple different ways. It’s either showing samples of different materials and palettes and getting that defined. I believe, Sandy and Jennifer talked about vibe maps on this podcast before, those are ideas that can be used. Other opportunities that I’ve taken, actually, if I’m looking at a larger population subset for a certain space is to kind of get a survey response just to kind of see where a company or a business or a client lies. And so it might be asking the group, you know, do like something in terms of nature, or urban or historical or future and getting their feedback of where the collective group wants to go. Because ultimately, that provides us a center point to design from, a known, give us sort of a strategic target to hit. And I’ve done that through a few projects, more so on the larger scale of building design. So that’s one example.

Sarah Steimer 13:11
Well, this is you brought something up that now you know, we’re talking about from a starting point. But have you ever used this matrix as sort of almost a survey to take a look at how maybe a building already exists? And maybe something feels a little bit out of whack? And then you use this matrix to go, oh, this is the piece that’s out of balance?

Joel Anderson 13:33
That’s a great question. Um, nobody’s asked for us to do that, honestly. But I’d be happy to help sometimes when we go in and look at projects in terms of adaptive reuse. You know, my first concerns as a designer is is how sterile is the space? Does it have any character left in it? I’m always concerned that we’re maybe just putting in too much white chipboard in our projects. And there’s a lack of feeling and trying to find what characters are in projects, to help them accentuate those unique details that the client already has access to? So it’s a great question, and it’s something that I’d be looking forward to studying further, we do have the tools to do it. And we’ve been looking at projects through post-occupancy evaluation where clients have already gotten in and use the building and have received some feedback on that.

Sarah Steimer 14:25
So now I’m probably going to ask a dangerous question. I feel like this is about to be like, you know, which of your children is your favorite kind of question. But like of these, of these four elements of coherence, complexity, legibility mystery, do you think one is maybe more important than the other? Or do you have maybe a preference in terms of the one that is the most forgotten that you always want to remind people to focus on?

Joel Anderson 14:50
That’s a great question. I think no—

Sarah Steimer 14:53
I set you up.

Joel Anderson 14:55
Yeah, that’s a great question. As as you go through your career and use are looking at buildings that sort of transcend over time. I think the ones, the buildings that last the longest are the ones that kind of have hit all of these pieces in an effective manner. And so do I see projects that you lean on one more than another? Yes. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily a complete problem, or anything like that, or a concern of mine. But I do think it is a unique way for different clients and different projects to accentuate themselves in some subtle notion. So I think they’re all, you know, equal tools in my, my toolbox, and I, hopefully, all of our toolboxes, and to remind ourselves that the balance of these things is actually very important to make sure that we’ve kind of hitting all ends of this spectrum, this multi dimensional spectrum.

Sarah Steimer 15:53
So my last question for you, because this is, and you and I will be talking again in the future, because there’s so much to kind of dive into as far as the psychology involved in architecture, but have you ever, now that you are so deep into your understanding of this, and just kind of constantly contemplating it, you’ve taught this? Have you ever walked into a space and just immediately gone? I know what’s out of balance? You know, like, where it’s almost like a gut feeling at this point where you can?

Joel Anderson 16:21
Yeah, yes, it happens, it happens, my girlfriend would be a great testimony to this, but I’ll walk into spaces and immediately just like, hit her on the shoulder, like, something’s out of whack here. And I might not be in the right environment to discuss it. And so we’ll exit out or whatever. And she’s like, Why did you hit me on the shoulder? I’m like, wow, that plant was really out of place, or something like that. It just said enough that it triggered me to a way — and I’m always wondering, you know, our clients do things for different reasons, or everybody you know, has their own preferences. And I have to acknowledge that my preferences are not necessarily everybody else’s preferences. And I think that’s been a key strength of the designer, to acknowledge that and be able to control your own sort of design emotions in some sort of way. So yes, it does happen frequently, I’d say maybe once or twice a month, but it is, it’s something that doesn’t send you off the rails.

Sarah Steimer 17:23
That’s kind of funny. I like the idea that you’re kind of like giving your girlfriend a nudge and going, this place is completely illegible. This isn’t working.

Joel Anderson 17:32

Sarah Steimer 17:34
Sure. Well, Joel, that was that was everything that I wanted to chat with you about today. I think this is a really nice, like, base from which we can then dive into this even deeper in the future. Is there anything else that you wanted to mention as it relates to this matrix to environmental cues or preferences that you think is just kind of just a little interesting tidbit or example that you wanted to share with the audience,

Joel Anderson 17:58
I just say, these are the type of cues that kind of tie into some of the design awards that are defined by our profession through interior design, landscape design, or architecture. And I think that’s important for all designers to note that these values sit within that as they’re reviewed in projects. So that’s all

Sarah Steimer 18:19
awesome. Well, Joel, thank you so much for taking the time and I’m really looking forward to chatting with you again in the future.

Producer 18:25
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold. And a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening.

For more information about Good, Thoughtful Hosts,
visit our podcast homepage.