The Psychology & Science of Decorating: Understanding the 5 Ways We Experience a Room

updated Jul 17, 2020
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(Image credit: Monica Wang)

As anyone reading this site knows, design is about a lot more than just having a pretty room. There are many different elements that go into the experience of a space, and they can all have a significant impact on the way that we relate to our surroundings.

In Environmental Interiors, authors Mary Jo Weale, James W. Croake, and W. Bruce Weale argue that human beings experience their environments in five ways:

  1. Through the senses—sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell.
  2. Through time and by movement through space.
  3. Through reasoning or thought, memory or imagination.
  4. Through emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant.
  5. Through anticipation or expectation.

Many of these are intuitive, and they’re deeply interrelated, but it’s worth taking a bit of time to unpack each of these elements and to consider their value in home decor.

1. The Senses

(Image credit: Patrick J. Hamilton)

This is probably the most obvious way that we engage with our homes. Pattern, color, lighting, and spatial arrangement appeal to the eyes; flowers and candles appeal to the nose; textures and space planning appeal to the touch; music, conversation, and quiet appeal to the ears; and foods and drinks appeal to the tongue. A comfortable home will have elements designed to please all of the senses, and as a consequence, sensory engagement is probably the primary way that we make sense of the items that we buy for our homes. Is it pretty? Does it please? Does it fit the space? Is it the right style? An environment’s experiential foundation rests on these fundamental physical and material qualities.

2. Time and Movement through Space

(Image credit: Anne-Claire)

Whether you’re looking for modern, antique, or a mixture of the two, time is a crucial design element. Environments steeped in antiques with deep backstories and generations of love will feel quite different from those with streamlined, crisp furnishings. Often, a mixture of these two sides of the spectrum helps create a comfortable space. In Anne-Claire’s House Call (pictured above) antique wicker furniture, art nouveau posters, and a modern sofa all mingle in a 1960s living area to create a colorful and relaxed space.

(Image credit: Cathy Pyle)

I would say that space is even more paramount, though, in establishing the “feel” of a particular room. The floor plan relates form to function, and it has the power to give a home a sense of fluidity and freedom or a sense of being restricted and hemmed in. Each space’s needs will be different, but when thinking about space, consider movement patterns, the distance between furniture (which goes a long way toward making a space feel cozy or uninviting), and the need for negative space.

3. Mental Approaches: Reason, Memory, Imagination

(Image credit: Jacqueline Marque)

Furnishings don’t exist in a vacuum, and even the smallest of objects will probably carry a mental association. For many people, memory is the most pervasive faculty when it comes to furnishing a home: grandmother’s dishes, a table from one’s parents, souvenirs from a trip, photos of important events. Our lives are awash with memories, and the home is, in many ways, a museum of comfort, where all these memories can be gathered and cherished. But reason and imagination are no less important. Reason enters the picture when you decide on layouts or organize your belongings. It ensures that the home is functional, and at the best of times, it floats invisible behind the scenes, adding a sense of comfort and fluidity to daily life. Imagination is the element that keeps you creative, nourished, stimulated, and inspired. I recently wrote a piece about bringing an element of wonder into the home, and I think that it’s a truly important part of a nurturing home.

4. Emotions

(Image credit: Chris Stout-Hazard)

Roger and Chris called this their “Combat the Gloom” makeover, and with good reason. It’s hard not too feel energized and warmed by the hot pink that they selected, and this room is an excellent reminder that seemingly simple choices, like 3 feet of paint and a painted ceiling, can completely alter the way that you feel when you’re in a room. Color psychology exists for a reason, and it works at a such a deep level that you may not even realize its subtle power. Other elements can also alter your emotions. Low ceilings will convey a different feeling than higher ones. A room with a great deal of natural light will yield itself to different moods than one without windows. Pay attention to your architecture, as well as the different ways that you want to feel in your space, and see if you can get them to align or at least to complement each other.

5. Anticipation or Expectation

(Image credit: Carolyn Purnell)

Sometimes you want things to be exactly as they seem or as they “should be.” There is comfort in having one’s expectations met. Being able to predict basic things like where the spoons will be or whether the bedroom will be restful can help a person maintain a sense of control. All too often, the world is filled with unrelenting anxiety, and keeping those confusions out of the home can ensure that your home really is your haven.

But there are other situations in which you may want to shake things up a bit. The power of subversion—even subtle subversion—is immense. Putting those spoons inside a vintage coffee canister instead of in a drawer might be the little creative jolt that you need. Or selecting a color that’s one notch beyond your comfort zone might give your home that “wow” factor that you’ve been missing. Play with patterns, mix up your furnishings, put odd items on the wall, and shuffle things around. Having a sense of adventure when it comes to your home can also give it a significantly different tenor.

All in all, it’s important to consider these elements together. They’re a total package, and it’s their multifaceted interplay that really creates the “feel” of a room. It’s often hard to describe what it’s like to “experience” a room, but it may be easier to understand when you consider its component parts.