This chapter describes the history and evolution of ‘the multiple sorting task’ as an adaptable and effective device for eliciting participants’ understanding of both the qualitative nature of and the structure of their life experiences, including environments of all scales. The development of the sorting task – initially as a research tool – emerged over several decades through a long tradition in clinical and cognitive psychology. By the 1980s, researchers in environmental psychology had refined and adapted the sorting task for use in addressing a variety of research contexts, while also testing its versatility for engaging respondents’ multi-layered responses to environments at all scales. Once the sorting task’s inherent versatility was established, it was adapted as a ‘game-like device’ for engaged learning experiences in environmental design teaching, and for participatory purposes with client and civic groups in the practices of architecture, urban design, and planning.

A total of six exemplar engagements of the multiple sorting task within the contexts of research, teaching, and design practice are described in detail, and the implications of their outcomes fully examined. Specific exemplars of the use of the sorting task in research include: Groat’s initial engagement of it in a study of architects’ and non-architects’ responses to Modern- and Post-Modern-styled buildings; and a recent research study in which the sorting task protocol was substantially expanded in interviews with church members and ‘unchurched’ community members concerning their interpretations of the appealing and welcoming attributes of church building designs. Next, we discuss two uses of the sorting task in educational settings: one in which architecture students are asked to reflect on their personal image banks of past place experiences; and another that simulates architecture students’ experiences of how they might design for a ‘client’ respondent whose responses to sorting home design exteriors are substantially different than their own. Finally, we examine the use of the sorting task in two co-design settings: the first is an extension of the church exteriors study, in which the extent to which church members’ spiritual practices might affect their design priorities in programmed space allocation in a new church building; and, the final exemplar examines how the sorting task was used in a university context to identify the values and priorities of students and other university community members for the purpose of programming for renovations to student unions/centers on campus.