Personality of Space: The Origins of Psychological Type Theory and How It Can Inform Design

By Emma DeCamp, Research Analyst

Lately, we’ve been thinking about how corporate cultures are manifested in the built environment. Does an open office floor plan tell us anything about the hierarchical structure of a technology firm? Do variable design elements incorporated into classrooms tell us anything about how an elementary school values diversity?

Geert Hofstede’s Model of Organization Culture (1980) is the paradigm for organizational culture evaluation. His framework focuses on operational tendencies—how work gets done and how teams are organized. But our interest lies in the values behind operational tendencies and how they are fostered by the built environment.

At MKThink we are researching and developing our own tool to evaluate organizational culture to inform the design of physical spaces. The guiding question of our research is: How do organizations build culture with values and bricks? Operating from the assumption that the culture of an organization and the personality of an individual are both made up of values, underlying assumptions, interests, experiences, and habits that influence behavior, we’ve been exploring the origins and applications of personality tests.

Myers-Briggs is one of the most commonly known personality tests. Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers, without any formal training in psychology, developed a psychological type theory based on their observations of human behavior and the extensive list of biographies they had read.[1]

Their theory was largely influenced by the work of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology. In his Psychological Types, he proposed a rationale for the innate difference between humans.[2] Everyone, Jung argued, has a unique disposition, which stems from their ancestral past and inclines them to perceive and judge the world in different ways. Jung arrived at his conclusions by listening to schizophrenics, administering word association tests, and observing bouts of his own madness. His methods were rejected as inconclusive by the modern field of psychology, and his recounts were inaccessible, stuffy with hallucinatory musings and academic jargon.

Briggs was determined to reconstruct Jung’s research into a “people-sorting tool” that was accessible to the public.[3] She and her daughter initially created the MBTI as a career guidance tool,[4] prompted by the job dissatisfaction they observed during World War II. The MBTI questionnaire measures an individual’s inclination for introversion or extroversion, sensing or intuition, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving. Results indicate one of 16 possible personality types, neutrally described with constructive advice. The positive tone of the evaluation likely contributed to its popularity.

The Five-Factor Model evolved as an offshoot from the MBTI. The Five-Factor Model focuses on language to decode the way we understand each other and the world, rather than relying on one particular psychologist’s theory. [5] Lewis Goldberg, the pioneer of the Five-Factor Model, administered evaluations that asked people to rank themselves according to certain personality-related adjectives.[6] From these evaluations, he derived five primary factors of personality – extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.[7]

MKThink’s prototype “personality test” for organizations incorporates aspects of the MBTI and the Five-Factor Model. Modeling Goldberg’s emphasis on language, we’re cataloging terms frequently found in mission and core value statements, such as sustainable, innovative, diverse, and transparent, to determine common cultural attributes that members of organizations use to characterize themselves.

We will develop this catalog of terms into an objective framework for on site evaluations of organizations, in which we compare expressed attributes to observed culture and behaviors and to the configuration of the physical space. Based on our findings, we will identify gaps between culture and the built environment. Just as the Myers-Briggs and Factor-Five models offer personal, relationship, and career guidance according to personality type, our model will recommend solutions to align the values and behaviors of organizations with their physical environments.

Although our model will not require clients to hallucinate in the same way Jung did, we may similarly want to “individuate” and tap the unconscious operations of organizations. MKThink has uncovered deep insights with “fly-on-the-wall” studies, in which we secretly infiltrate an organization to learn firsthand about its culture. Researching design schemes for the Stanford, design researchers enrolled in classes as students. The actual students let their guards down and offered insights into the dynamics between students, faculty, and the different design departments, which they may have not otherwise volunteered in an interview or survey. MKThink researchers came to understand the unspoken expectations that dictated the communication between and individual behavior of members and prescribed design solutions accordingly.

Just as psychologists aspire to understand individuals, as design strategists, we at MKThink aspire to probe the surficial identities of the organizations we serve, to understand the beliefs, behaviors, and social and physical structures that compose their culture. Through this deep understanding of our clients we hope to develop designs that physically embody their organizational values and enable them to realize their performance goals.

Emma DeCamp is a Junior Research Associate at MKThink. She helps strategy teams better understand cultural and environmental variables at play in their projects. She received her BA in Environmental Studies from Middlebury College and hopes one day she too can lock herself in a room, hallucinate, and later have millions of people read her books.







[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid