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How Design Can Break You


A walk through a BMW showroom once gave me a nervous breakdown.

I was living the dream, as an artist in San Francisco during the height of the tech boom. I had a secure job, a flourishing studio practice and a quasi-jet-setter lifestyle. My programmer boyfriend and I spent weekends on the ski slopes, taking day trips on his BMW motorcycle, and returning for exquisite meals at the top restaurants in town.

One day we went to get his motorcycle tuned up. I wandered through the BMW showroom for twenty minutes. Upon returning home, I had an existential crisis.

“I never thought of myself as materialistic,” I sobbed to my sister. “I just thought that if I worked hard and got really good at my art, someday I’d be able to afford a BMW without thinking about it. I feel like a total failure.”

My sister replied, “You know, BMW hires psychologists and designers to set up their showroom so you feel like that.”


At that time I prided myself on living outside of mainstream culture, starting more trends than I followed. All at once, my independence of spirit was proven to be a fantasy. Avoiding advertising didn’t make me immune to it; it made me all the more susceptible to manipulation by designer, because I had no resistance to it.

Like it or not, we are creatures which respond to certain types of environmental, social and economic cues. Most of the time, we have little control over our surroundings. Our nervous systems are picking up messages all the time, which direct our emotions, and thus our thoughts and actions.

Over time, these emotional cues can have a profound effect on our health, as stress responses trigger cascades of cortisol and adrenalin, wearing down our immune systems and paving the way for chronic illness.

Knowing this, is there any reason you would NOT want to organize your own space so that it sends the cues you want to receive? Because design is not the work of the devil. It’s a tool which can be used in any way you choose. You can design your own space to make you feel secure, supported, inspired and calm.

Or you can ignore it, and let the capitalist fiends have their way with you.