An applied sociological perspective on design

An applied sociological perspective on design
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Michelle Janning, professor of sociology and Whitman College Human Centered Design Fellow

Do you ever feel frustrated when the airport security line seems to be moving too slowly? What about when the restaurant tables are so close together that it’s hard to walk to the bathroom (let alone have a one-on-one conversation)? Or when you can’t get work done because the noise of the housemate’s conversation is pulsating through your walls?

It is easy to imagine how the environment we create (and how objects are arranged in that environment) does not always meet our personal and social needs. In other words, we often find that something is poorly designed when our involvement in the design leaves us feeling frustrated, stuck, or even disconnected.

Now think about when things are going well: the line is moving fast; dinner goes smoothly; work is carried out without interruption. Have you ever stopped and noticed when things are working well in the spaces and places you occupy? Sometimes I think I have to make more of an effort to recognize when things are going than when things are stuck. I often find bad design easier to spot than good design. Why is that?

Figure 1In our daily life, we go through many things that we take for granted. We don’t think about how good it is to wander around the airport when the signs are clearly visible and the paths are easy to navigate. It doesn’t take a lot of time or energy to know how to act when we walk into a restaurant and see the host welcoming us or a sign that says “sit yourself.” If we’ve just finished a big project and weren’t interrupted by a noisy neighbor, we might not even have noticed the time passing. We don’t see familiar things precisely because they work well. Until they are not. Or until we realize—often with the help of someone who has trouble navigating the design—that they really only work well for some of us.

As sociologists, we expose taken-for-granted assumptions, systems, and processes. We notice these elements of the social world even when things are not obviously bad. Peter Berger called this observation the sociological perspective. He said that things in our social world that seem natural or normal are actually “not what they seem.” If you find that something is designed even at times when it works well for you (and especially when you think it might not work for everyone), you enter Berger’s “not what it seems” arena. In my research and teaching, I focus on questions that link the design of our spaces to our roles, relationships and social inequalities – including when designs work well and when they seem to create conflict or increase inequality between groups.

While sociologists can study the ways in which design affects people, we as applied sociologists can also help with the design process itself. How can this happen? In an ideal (built) world, architects, builders and designers would create spaces using their own expertise combined with ideas from those who would take it for granted that the space would be perfect for them.

To do this, the design process requires an inclusive information-gathering process, using methods that sociologists excel at, such as interviews, surveys, and observations. For example, designers could gather a focus group to comment on a 3D design mockup. They would then review this input and use it to inform the revised design. Often they would also include a post-occupancy evaluation (perhaps observations or a short survey) to see how the project may (or may not) perform once it’s built.

Figure 2Whether it’s a TSA line, a restaurant, or a home remodel, if builders or designers don’t include a way to capture what people can do, want, or believe in the design process, the design will fail. Sociologists can help people who create designed spaces collect and analyze data from the people who might use the design.

I do this kind of “people research” consulting work with design organizations that would like to use social science data collection to see if their designs will work or work for end users. I’ve also written an accessible and concise guide for architects, builders and designers to inform their projects through inclusive data collection processes – what I call socially informed research in the design process. I define it as “the ethical and intentional incorporation of human-centered data collection and analysis throughout the design process. It is an iterative and systematic practice of collecting, analyzing and sharing the people who occupy and use the built environment that architects and interior designers create through the design and construction of projects..

But helping designers use reliable “people research” methods is only half the recipe. Imagine an airport security line sign for the visually impaired. Imagine navigating a restaurant when someone uses a walker. Imagine a noisy house for someone who is sensitive to sound due to PTSD. I learned this most vividly while working with Community First! Housing Village in Austin, Texas. It is a micro-housing community designed to meet the needs of people experiencing chronic homelessness.

A team of architects and designers asked for my help in developing inclusive interview questions for a particularly vulnerable population. I was able to point out how they were already doing great work in developing inclusive data collection technologies; I was also able to add some tips on how to best choreograph interviews so that people who were otherwise suspicious of outsiders from formal organizations would feel comfortable sharing their stories and doing so in private.

Figure 3

As an applied sociologist who works with designers, builders and architects, my job is to teach them to use a sociological perspective – to see the strange in the familiar, paying particular attention to the cultural values ​​and the people who will live and the social places. the use of design can affect their experience. I also aim to teach useful social science data collection techniques, especially how to ask the right questions to get the most comprehensive information possible. Inclusive design requires inclusive data collection during the design process.

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