Concurrents – Environmental Psychology: Designing Spaces and Choosing Clothes

In the fall of 2016, an article titled, “How to Dress Like An Adult,” by Vanessa Friedman, was published in the Fashion and Style section of The New York Times. It is part of a series “aimed at helping you navigate life’s opportunities and challenges.”

Reading through Friedman’s article, I was struck by how well the rules for professional dressing laid out by Friedman align with how workplaces should be designed. As we start the new year, we have the opportunity to take a critical look at our professional surroundings.

Friedman’s first rule is that clothes should not be distracting: “Clothes should not be the focus of attention, which is to say, they should not be what colleagues or friends remember after a meeting. This generally means you should not have to fiddle with straps, waistbands, decoration or any other part of a garment…The point is: You want people around you to think about what you say, not what your clothes say. They should support performance, but not be [italics original] a performance.”

How true of workplaces as well: they need to make it more likely that people will be able to work to their full potential.

Rule one does not mean that the messages sent by the form of a workplace are not important.

Rule two of professional dressing is, “Think of your clothes as costume…Figure out your chosen role, and dress for the part.” Too often, when workplaces are being designed, the messages people hope to send are prioritized over the work actually being done. Both must be recognized and respected, however, and regularly they align. Design that supports – or doesn’t support – performance always sends an important signal about the extent to which professional contributions are truly valued.

Friedman’s third, and final, dressing rule is, “Learn to iron (and sew, and fold and invest in some good hangers).” The workplace analogy is: think beyond the first week a space is in use; make sure it can be maintained with reasonable effort and also can continue to evolve so that it remains an effective servant of the organization.

Space design that supports people working has a lot in common with clothing design that helps move those workers’ careers in desired directions. When done well, both demonstrate the contributions that design can make to professional performance and success.

Sally Augustin, PhD, a cognitive scientist, is the editor of Research Design Connections (, a monthly subscription newsletter and free daily blog, where recent and classic research in the social, design, and physical sciences that can inform designers’ work are presented in straightforward language. Readers learn about the latest research findings immediately, before they’re available elsewhere. Sally, who is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, is also the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009) and, with Cindy Coleman, The Designer’s Guide to Doing Research: Applying Knowledge to Inform Design (Wiley, 2012). She is a principal at Design With Science ( and can be reached at