February 27, 2023

An Applied Sociological Perspective on Design

Janning-M-7756 copyBy Michelle Janning, Professor of Sociology and co-designer of Human-Centered Design at Whitman College 

Do you ever find yourself feeling frustrated when an airport security line seems to be moving too slowly? How about when restaurant tables are arranged so close to each other that it’s hard to navigate the trek to the restroom (let alone have a private conversation)? Or when you can’t get work done because the noises coming from a housemate’s conversation are pulsing through your walls?

It’s easy to imagine ways that our built environments (and how objects are arranged in those environments) don’t always meet our personal and social needs. Put another way, we often notice that something is poorly designed when our engagement with the design leaves us feeling frustrated, stuck, or even excluded.

Now think about when things go well: the line moves quickly; the dinner goes smoothly; the work gets done without interruption. Have you ever stopped to notice when things work well in the spaces and places you occupy? Sometimes I find I have to make a little more effort to recognize when things are flowing as compared to when things are stuck. For me, it is often easier to notice bad design than it is to notice good design. Why is this?

Picture1In our everyday lives we pass over many taken-for-granted phenomena. We don’t think about how wandering through an airport goes well when the signage is easy to see and the paths are easy to navigate. It doesn’t take a lot of time or energy to know how to act when we enter a restaurant and either see a host greeting us or a sign that says “seat yourself.” If we’ve just finished a large project and we were not interrupted by a noisy neighbor, we may not have even noticed the time flying by. We don’t see familiar things precisely because they are working well. Until they’re not. Or until we realize – often with the help of someone who struggles to navigate the design – that they’re really only working well for some of us.

As sociologists we uncover taken-for-granted assumptions, systems, and processes. We notice these elements of our social world even when things are not obviously bad. This noticing is what Peter Berger called 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 yourself noticing how something is designed even in moments when it’s working well for you (and especially when you consider that it may not work well for everyone), you are entering into Berger’s “not what they seem” arena. In my research and teaching, I focus on questions that connect the design of our spaces with our roles, relationships, and social inequalities – including when designs work well and when they seem to create conflict or exacerbated inequalities between groups.

While sociologists can study the ways that designs influence people, as applied sociologists we can also assist in the design process itself. How might this happen? In an ideal (built) world, architects, builders, and designers would create spaces using their expertise alongside ideas from those who’d like to be able to take for granted that the space will work well for them.

To do this, an inclusive input-gathering process in the design process is needed, using the kinds of methods that sociologists are good at employing such as interviews, surveys, and observations. For example, designers could convene a focus group for comment on a 3-D design mock-up. Then, they’d review this input and use it to inform a revised design. Often they’d also include a post-occupancy evaluation (perhaps observations or a short survey) to see how the design may (or may not) be working once built.

Picture2Whether it’s a TSA line, a restaurant, or a home remodel, if builders or designers don’t incorporate a way to capture what people may do, want, or believe in the design process, designs will fall flat. Sociologists are able to guide people who are creating designed spaces in the collection and analysis of data from people who may use the designs.

I do this kind of “people research” consulting work with design organizations who’d like to employ social scientific data collection to see if their designs will work or are working for end-users. I have also written an accessible and concise guidebook for architects, builders, and designers to be able to inform their designs with inclusive data-gathering processes – something I call socially-informed research in the design process. I define this as “the ethical and intentional incorporation of human-centered data gathering and analysis throughout the design process. It is the iterative and systematic practice of gathering, analyzing, and sharing input from people who occupy and engage with the built environments that architects and interior designers create as the designs are created and built.

But helping designers employ sound “people research” methods is only half the recipe. Imagine the airport security line signage for someone with low vision. Imagine the restaurant navigation for someone using a walker. Imagine a noisy house for someone with sound sensitivity due to PTSD. I learned this most vividly in my work with the Community First! Housing Village in Austin, Texas. This is a community of microhomes designed to meet the needs of people with chronic homelessness.

The team of architects and designers asked for my help to create inclusive interview questions for a particularly vulnerable population. I was able to point out how they were already doing a great job of designing inclusive data-gathering techniques; I was also able to add a few tips for how best to choreograph the interviews so that people who were otherwise suspicious of outsiders from formal organizations felt comfortable sharing their stories, and could do so in private. 


As an applied sociologist partnering with designers, builders, and architects, my job is to teach them how to use the sociological perspective – to see the strange in the familiar, with particular focus on how cultural values and social locations of people who will inhabit and use the design may impact their experiences. I also aim to teach useful social scientific data-gathering methods, especially how to ask the right kinds of questions to get the most inclusive input possible. Inclusive data-gathering during the design process is needed if we want to create inclusive designs.

Photos courtesy of pixabay.com 


I love this article! Especially in the first half where you focused on the taken-for-granted mindset. I recently published an article on my own blog about how we're to blame for the way news networks push out negative news. (https://donrogue.com/the-villains-behind-all-this-gruesome-news/)

Really, really love this type of concept. I truly believe we (humans) overlook a lot of the times life goes "right" or "smooth."

My long-term goal is to become a professor since I enjoy innovation and creative designs. light geometry dash

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