Design Detachment: Exploring the Psychological Impacts of Attachment Theory on the Design Process

Bergmeyer Designer Daniela Acevedo explores the psychological effects of attachment theory on the design process, offering solutions for mitigating the various challenges designers face with chasing an infinite design phase left better in the past.

The Challenge of Detachment

At the intersection of relationships and human connection, it is safe to say that the vast majority of us have heard of or experienced some form of attachment theory and the psychological impact it can have on the ways we relate with others close to us. But as designers (and especially designers in the creative agency world), have we ever considered how the psychological aspects of this theory transcend beyond human relationships into a form of attachment to any given step of the design process throughout a project’s lifespan? And even more specifically - the psychological effects of attachment theory we may experience after the project’s completion? How are the end-users interacting and utilizing the space? What elements of the design are working successfully? Even worse, what elements of the design are being misused or abused?

For some, the inability to detach from a project can happen anywhere from the concept ideation phase to long after turnover, most often arising when a designer witnesses the space being utilized in a way that strays from the original vision.

Personally, it is sometimes tough to see even the slightest diversion from the intended creative vision like a seating layout off by a few inches from the "optimal" arrangement, so I decided to ask a few of Bergmeyer’s own passionate designers whether they have this issue, and what it is for them that makes them recoil with utter angst - is it a design phase that they feel could have been longer? Is it envisioning a final product differently after delivery?

The Illusion of Perfection

In the pursuit of project perfection, designers often associate more time with better outcomes. However, success lies in balancing design factors and solving for the goal efficiently. Spending excessive time exploring options can lead to scope creep, added costs, and weaker concepts. For example, if a goal is achieved on day 3 but the designer spends 100 days exploring other options purely for the sake of their design process, their time-utilization negatively impacts the overall value of the project’s bottom line.


Chasing the 'infinite design phase' may result in an unwillingness to let go, impacting schedules and resources. Using flexible tools like physical models, modular compositions, or loose sketches can foster greater design flexibility. Unchecked perfectionism, driven by an unreasonable performance bar, however, can negatively affect mental health and relationships in collaborative environments, and even cloud the designer's ability to see obvious warning signs with regards to a project's schedule, resources, and client servicing.

Finding joy in exceeding expectations and achieving goals can be rewarding, but perfectionism often sets unrealistic performance standards. This may hinder collaboration as others struggle to match these lofty benchmarks. Perfectionists tie their value to meeting these relentless standards, impacting both mental health and relationships, especially in collaborative settings. And in a world of co-creation and collaboration at the forefront of our workforce, these character traits can cause unnecessary grief in a creative studio.

To foster detachment, start by reframing your mindset and shedding unhealthy habits. Consider the project's constraints, like client expectations and budget limitations, and learn when to stop. Experience will refine this skill, preventing unnecessary project prolongation. Maintain a positive outlook, celebrating achievements and accepting the final outcome, freeing yourself from the need to control the future use of the space.

Navigating Attachment

Internally there can be an attachment to the process itself which is fueled by the idea of "work centrality.”

Work centrality refers to an individual’s outlook on the degree of importance they assign to work as it relates to other areas of their lives. A person with high work centrality tends to associate a large part of their identity with their work or career advancement. With work comprising such a big chunk of our days, this much immersion into a sole facet of life can unhealthily skew one’s perception of success, pleasure, reward, and growth, often neglecting other areas vital to our development as functioning members of society.

The goal should always be to feel deeply connected to one's work and to use each project as a motivating factor to grow through it, continuing to develop professionally through each unique project experience. But as with anything dealt in excess, making this one area a primary of one's life can exacerbate any commitment to perfectionism, particularly in the design world.

The boundary between sound and aspirational habits that lead to improvement (of our traits, our work, and our ways of thinking)  and the cyclical pursuit of perfectionism is a fairly thin one that designers in particular should keep top of mind. When asked about this notion of perfectionism, our designers have noted that with more experience over time, one should begin to feel increased confidence in design skills that allows you to know when a design phase must conclude without overwhelming yourself with feelings of nostalgia. Some of these design skills include sketch iterations and follow-through of identifiably stronger ideas.


Bridging the Gap: From Design to Utilization

As projects near completion, creative agents often find themselves fixating on potential improvements triggered by elements of the finished product. Whether it's furniture arrangements or design details, these micro-triggers can lead to unhealthy attachment, raising questions about how long these feelings linger.

Designers need to embrace the art of letting go, understanding that it's a constant practice from project to project. In a world with limited control, the design process becomes a unique avenue for managing this delicate balance.

Returning to spaces post-completion may lead to a desire for pristine conditions and unrealistic expectations for the space to meet the expectations of how it was visualized throughout the design process, but acknowledging that users will employ spaces differently is crucial. The goal is to understand the actual purpose of the design versus the hypothesized one.

To counteract attachment effects, proactive solutions during the design process and after project completion are essential. Designers can focus on mitigating future stressors like layout changes, cleanability, and durability by anticipating usage needs upfront and designing for flexibility. Selecting materials that resist wear and tear, providing lasting durability, and incorporating spatially adaptable elements like modular furniture help bridge the gap between the original and final design.

Post-occupancy evaluations, especially for repeat clients, offer valuable insights. Designers can better account for post-delivery conditions individually, but we should also look to reevaluate broader industry-specific practices to identify more sound and healthy ways for designers to prepare for project closures and transitional phases. This could involve supplemental services or maintenance instructions, addressing potential issues like damage due to cleaning or normal wear-and-tear.

Ultimately, by understanding the intent of a space upfront, designers can avoid getting hung up on minor elements and appreciate the larger accomplishments achieved through the design process.


Embracing Growth

Whichever route we look to take to effective detachment from design, we should emphasize the fact that the goal is to find healthy ways to navigate any design task that delivers solution-based results. All while also allowing designers to exercise their creativity and thoughtfulness without becoming unconstructive. Bergmeyer designers have shared a slightly more optimistic outlook on this exit strategy, noting that to avoid perpetuating the items that could be improved, it can help to take each step of the project as a teachable moment – particularly the mistakes. Learning from those challenges and applying those lessons to future projects becomes the mark of a seasoned designer on a better path to detachment.