Interior Design Theory



The paths that are traversed routinely through a space are, without a doubt, the most important consideration for efficiency of design, and the biggest contributing factor to human interaction. Designing a home or workspace without this consideration can lead to unforeseen fragmentation of the individuals involved, while well engineered pathways can contribute to unity of effort and emotional synergy. The physical intersections that are made in the normal pathways of life enhance interpersonal association. Pathways that avoid human contact diminish this association. In general, with few exceptions, normal architectural pathways should be designed to enhance human interaction and avoid human isolation.

Humans are social and seek security within the group. The comfort of the home should enhance this. An emotionally secure family will tend to group close together in their normal environment, by eating together, spending quality time together, and even sleeping in close proximity of one another.

Historically, for example, bedrooms of small houses were clustered for efficiency of design and build, but this configuration also contributed a spatial sense of emotional security for children. On the other hand, a design physically isolating a bedroom at the far end of the house may inadvertently contribute to a sense of emotional isolation.

Team Pathways-

In the commercial setting, the same concept can be applied to enhance team dynamics. Individuals that are intended to work closely toward a common goal should have their normal workday pathways involve interaction, both casually and professionally, with other members of the team. On the other hand, it may be advantageous to isolate teams with different functions, so that they may have unwavering dedication to that function - sales vs. design, for example - and then provide provisional intersectional pathways for resolution of any professional conflict.

Conflict Resolution-

Conflicts arise between teams and between individuals. In the family setting, parents effectively function as the governing team, while children, many times, maintain a different viewpoint. Additionally, individual family members experience conflict with one another. In the commercial setting, teams often need to work independently for the optimization of goals, with conflicts arising between teams of different perspectives.

Neutral space should exist as a central pathway destination or transition, with all members of the family or organization able to easily pass through the neutral space in their daily activities. This space should not be used for conflict resolution but offered for the comfort of all involved. This space should involve a sense of emotional relaxation. In the commercial sense, an atrium with living plants, comfortable seating, natural light, and general human comforts would be an example. In this setting, team accomplishments should be emphasized, and individual focus should be avoided. This has the effect of emotionally recharging the individual as to what really should be the goal of effort. In the home, similar emotional comforting should be provided for all involved. Again, things such as a personal hunting trophy or personal achievement awards by one member of the family should not be included in this space.

The areas and pathways for conflict resolution should be variable and not held in any one area, to avoid interpretation of the space as merely a “boxing arena.” Locations outside of the normally occupied space are preferred for this.

Individual pathways-

All individuals in a home setting or within an organization should be provided a pathway destination for their emotional or functional well-being. The pathway to this destination can be ever narrowing if capsulation is desired, or broad, if the dynamic involved opposes capsulation. In the family setting, the individual destination is often the bedroom. Individualization of the bedroom should focus on individual comfort, as well as emotional and personal achievement and desire. Shared bedrooms can be problematic, but often comforts and emotional needs can be combined and accommodated as long as personal recognition is achievable. Husbands and wives sharing a bedroom should focus on combined emotional achievements and goals, but with additional pathways considered involving more individualistic needs. This is an area often overlooked.

In the office setting, personal “caves” should be provided for individualized function. Historically, the office cubical structure has served this function, with formal offices provided for those needing sequestering or confidential conferencing. An issue with the cubicle is that it forces individuals into a degree of isolation for the majority of normal activity. A more updated model might have a communal space available for workers to function in the capacity contributing to the team effort, with the cave available for retreat and individualized production.

Space utilization-

A space that never sees a footprint is an inefficient volume of space but may contribute to the visual effects and drama associated with the emotional impression desired. If this isn’t considered, the space is simply wasted.

Pathway Decisions-

Pathways should involve decisions, but for the casual observer, the decisions should be directed. Decisions add interest and value to the space, but care must be taken not to create confusion. A split-level entry, for example, always involves a decision when encountered, and is often interpreted as confusing. This can be mitigated, however, if the decision can be directed by an almost “magnetic” attraction of the eye, creating an exploration path that makes directional sense. A carved console table at the top of the landing, for example, will create interest because of its complexity, even when viewed partially from the underside, causing the eye to question the space and to seek more understanding by coming up the stairs to view it more directly and square-on as intended.


Pathways should direct the course of discovery. The degree to which a space is opened should be moderated to not “give up all the secrets” without some exploration and effort by the observer. The human eye is very fast to interpret space that is regularly defined and very acute at seeing all within an area if allowed. This promotes boredom. Pathways should be created to act as “moderators” of space, allowing the eye to survey only that portion allowed without further exploration. Spatial barriers within pathways can also serve as rest areas for the eye and direct areas of focus. Gimmicky “focal points” should be avoided, unless used to direct the emotions of the observer. A WW II statue would be an example of this. A mural at the reception area of a business giving the viewer an emotional interpretation of why the business exists would be another. Consider a reception area for a water filtration company where the wall behind the reception desks shows a mural of workers harvesting fresh vegetables. The need for the company’s product is immediately established to the visitor at an emotional level.

Dead Ends-

Pathways should never involve a dead end. Dead ends enhance isolation, both physically and emotionally for those occupying the dead-end space. In the commercial environment, dead end offices reduce the amount of casual contact among coworkers, as the pathways don’t involve getting to any destination but the dead-end office. Involvement and interaction with the occupant of the dead-end office tends to only occur when something is demanded or requested of him. His value tends to be interpreted solely on what he can accomplish, rather than who he is. In the home, a dead-end bedroom will reduce the incidence of incidental interaction between family members. Dead ends are fine for storage rooms, mechanical rooms, areas of intended isolation and capsulation (the “man cave” for example) but should never be intended for normal human occupation.

Collision pathways-

Pathways direct human interaction. Collision pathways force human interaction, even beyond the emotional intent of the individuals. These pathways are valuable when emotional “stubbornness” of the individuals would otherwise redirect their pathways. In the commercial environment, the stereotyped “water-cooler” conversation is an example of a collision pathway. Interestingly, at a physiological level, the human experience requires using the bathroom, and ironically, the pathway of intersection for the occupants of a space can be enhanced by the location of this necessary private function. Home designs of the fifties and sixties usually involved but a single bathroom, with this often being at a T intersection of two bedrooms and the bathroom. The occupants of the home often met at this intersection, a collision of effort and need at the beginning of the day, each waiting to get ready for work or school. While inconvenient and sometimes awkward, it had the advantage of demanding human interaction between family members. Today it is often considered preferred to avoid this participation in the essential human experience by providing private bathrooms within bedrooms. It should not be neglected, however, to provide alternate pathways of intersection within the occupied space that forces human interaction of the family.

In the commercial setting, normal pathways of the occupants most often involve going to the bathroom and going to the break room. These habits can be ritualistic, as they often provide for emotional redirection of stress and grant the opportunity for interaction with coworkers. Pathways to the bathroom in the work setting can by planned, therefore , to enhance teamwork, if a worker has to figuratively “climb over” his coworkers to get to the bathroom by passing by (or through, in an open office setting) everyone’s office. A pathway to consider for increased interaction and teamwork with leadership is to create a pathway whereby workers pass by the leadership offices on the way to the bathroom, break room, or lunchroom. Of course, for this to be effective, leadership would have to understand the rituals involved and the effectiveness of these pathways.

Avoidance Pathways-

When the occupants of a space need separation, avoidance pathways should be created. In the home, avoidance pathways should be considered when accommodating guests. A separate entree to the guest bedroom or living area provides and accommodates privacy for folks that do not normally interact with the family. Also, a vision of the often referenced “mother-in-law apartment,” where a dedicated living area is provided for an extended family member, should give separation from the normal family pack, but should not exist as a dead end pathway, where complete isolation is created. Interaction within the family should be readily available for emotional security.

In the commercial setting, isolation pathways tend to create an “us vs. them” attitude. This can be advantageous when competition is encouraged, such as might be desired with independent product development teams. However, this type of pathway can inadvertently create tension when isolation or competition is not desired, and the emotional consequence of the pathway isn’t considered or realized.

Grand Pathways-

The open space concept has become a solution for the cave-like feel of the small house. Grand dimensions of breadth and height can free the confining connotation of small rooms. However, simply opening space by removing physical barriers is not without design complications. Spatially, it is tough to create suitable direction of view in such a space. Certainly, design components, such as furniture and complex visual barriers, can be adjusted to direct visual interest, but without skill in accomplishing this, great rooms are often left in a state of visual confusion.

If given the opportunity, the concept of open space should be directed at open pathways rather than simple open space. The concept of grand pathways can be envisioned by considering perspective. From a fixed viewpoint, perspective defines the distant as having smaller visual dimension than that which is nearby. A grand pathway can be defined as one which defies perspective – notably, that which is distant is not diminished. The word “pathway” itself connotes narrowness, like a path through a trail in the woods. If straight, this narrow pathway comes to a point in the distant. Architectural pathways, whenever possible, should attempt to defy this. The art of creating the sense of exploration within a home or commercial building lies in creating pathways that open the space beyond, pique the interest of what may be down the path, and provide for progressive intimacy toward the “soul” of the building. A grand pathway tends to almost irritate the eye, in that it does not have complete understanding of the space. Conversely, in simple open space, the eye is easily bored, either by rapidly surveying the scene and interpreting its significance through pattern recognition, or by being progressively confused, with artistic interest rapidly shutting down.

Not surprisingly, grand buildings utilize grand pathways, which are certainly more easily configured in larger buildings. However, with considerable thought, grand pathways can be engineered into very small spaces. For example, consider a large entry doorway that gives way to a small, but seemingly dimensionless vestibule, defined in size only by the backside of a large brick fireplace towering high, above immediate interest. Visually, focus is not directed to the monolithic brick, but what lies beyond. Interest is piqued by a glimpse around the fireplace of the floor to ceiling panoramic window view of the woods. This offers powerful intrigue, and the immediate desire is to move around the barrier, to see the postcard view. However, in moving around the fireplace wall, interest is first directed, then diverted by the spatial occupation of furniture pieces that are interesting in style and build, naturally occupying their space, as if they were preexistent to the space – not focal, but fuzzily directional – just enough to divert your interest to discover another pathway. Interest in the original destination remains but is postponed. Two furniture groupings are discovered – one in front of the fireplace, and one in front of the magnificent view. Thus intimacy is defined and makes for a powerful draw simply to sit and stay awhile.

Beyond this diversion, the original destination of the wooded view is finally explored. The journey here is paused momentarily for emotional reconciliation, but continues after a time of reflection, by looking to the left toward another grand pathway. This pathway is not defined by walls, but by spatial interest, with another destination in the distance – a sunroom, illuminated by the sun in the morning, and warm lights of intimacy at night.

Design professionals who recommend using the open concept should also have a good understanding of grand pathways. The space described above is open, but direction and intimacy are controlled. The space does not allow people to simply mill about. Occupants and visitors must commit to the intimacy suggested or move further along the pathway of discovery. Hosting a party or large gathering thus becomes not a process of “herding cattle” in an open space corral, but one of encapsulating intimacy in smaller groupings of comfortable interaction.

Pathway Summary-

Pathways are the most important consideration when starting any design project. Pathways are created not only in the architectural sense, but also through the arrangement of furnishings. Therefore, pathways need to be considered no matter how small the project. When the opportunity exists, pathways should be a primary consideration in pre-planning a structure. Lacking this forethought, or upon buying an existing home or commercial building, pathways should be primary in any thoughts of remodeling. Beyond this, pathways can be accomplished effectively through the visual and physical direction of the furniture and other items affecting the impression of space.