From How Biometric Software is Changing How We Understand Architecture—and Ourselves

by Ann Sussman + Janice M Ward

It doesn’t matter where they are—city, state, country, continent, it makes no difference. When it comes to big and boxy glass buildings, the human brain is hardwired to take them in the same way: as not much. Here are photos of towers in New York City, Boston, and Toronto. Below are the heatmaps, generated by biometric software, predicting where people will look at first glance, or within the first few seconds, before their conscious awareness is activated.

The heatmaps glow red where people might look most, fading to blue and then black in the areas that are ignored. What’s stunning about the images is how much of the buildings is initially not considered; our brain focuses on the edges, areas of high contrast, and ignores the buildings’ core. Wherever we may encounter massive, glassy boxes, we process them in the same way. 

The same is true with blank walls; human instinct is not to look at them. These findings can help explain an interesting phenomenon, why wall art helps revitalize blighted urban areas, as seen in these pictures from downtown Cincinnati:

Note how attention shifts to engage with the wall once it has colorful art, rather than focusing on its edges and the parked auto when the wall is blank. At the far right, top level, regions of interest (ROI) diagrams indicate with red contours that 88%–96 % of predicted views will fall in the center of the building’s new mural, the area that is most ignored when the wall is blank.

Welcome to our New Age of Biology, as the OECD, or Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, labeled the 21st century in 2012, where new insights in life sciences, paired with new technologies, have transformed not only what we do, but how we see ourselves and reframe understandings of what we need to see and be around to be at our best. 

The tech tool here is 3M’s Visual Attention Software (VAS), which arrived in 2011 and became a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator in 2020. (There are similar biometric tools on the market now, including VAS developed from over 30 years research at 3M, studying human responses to visual stimuli. The software simulates the first, subliminal phase of vision, which is before gender, age, or culture affects our attention, and also before conscious awareness sets in. Initially used to inform advertising, website, and signage design, VAS is now working its way into urban planning and architectural research and curricula. 3M promotes it as a “spellcheck” for all types of design, since, after all, the human viewer and the biology of our visual perception remain the same.

“The students are very excited by this software,” says Catholic University of America architecture professor Robin Puttock, RA. Her students used VAS for the first time to analyze new construction on their Washington, D.C., campus this spring. “I see so many ‘a-ha’ moments on their faces when they understand what it does and what it can do. They want to run photos of their latest design boards to learn what people will see first, and start brainstorming other ways they can use it.”

VAS made her and students see buildings differently, she said. “It has been interesting to note time and time again in our research that simple glass facades are just not seen by us precognitively. Humans seek visual interest, patterns, edges, nature and most of all, other humans. This has made me think more critically about what kind of buildings support our well-being.” 

When it comes to understanding how ornament and detail, as well as organized complexity, matter in building facades, VAS can make the case quickly. For instance, because humans are hardwired to ignore blank spaces, the brain directs a viewer to look around Cincinnati’s modern art museum, the Contemporary Arts Center, by Zaha Hadid (completed in 2003), rather than at it. Note how, in the images below, the VAS Visual Sequence diagram goes around the new building, while staying in the center of neighboring 19th-century building facades, shown above it. No surprise: A decade after opening, Metrobot, a sculpture in the museum’s collection by Nam June Paik, was installed permanently outside the museum’s front door in 2014. And VAS’s Visual Sequence suggests how the sculpture is, actually, truly magnetic, making the museum door easier to find. 

Ironically, high-tech tools like VAS allow us to confront something designers often neglect: consideration of our animal nature and how evolution, and the struggle for survival that made us, preset human visual biases. The fact is, these visual proclivities all remain ancient, making us Stone Age creatures, not modern at all. It’s something we may struggle to accept, but something we should understand: how buildings impact our behavior, our stress levels, and, ultimately, our overall health.

“Our visual system very rapidly computes edges, brightness, local intensity contrast and color contrast, as well as the presence of facelike geometries,” says Alexandros Lavdas, a neuroscientist using this biometric tool to research the built environment. “This rapid computation has a survival value, as it allows for quick reactions to be initiated, even before the nature of the stimulus has been consciously understood.” Evolving in the wild, we essentially still remain wired for that ancestral place.

Why does embracing our animal nature and using biometric tools to track it matter in architecture? “Because it gives objective data on issues that were considered subjective,” Lavdas says. Biometrics like VAS “provide an evidence-based tool, and it makes it more difficult to defend forms that do not visually engage the viewer.” And with powerful data points on how engagement actually happens, we can better explain human behavior in all kinds of built environments, such as why a facelike façade in the Harvard Lampoon building in Cambridge, Massachussets, is so often photographed and a frequent stop for tour groups.

Of course the travel buses stop here; they have to. The tower grabs people subliminally, anchoring them in the space and making it memorable. Exactly the opposite experience people have with the glass towers, as seen above. And it doesn’t matter that this brick tower is over a century old—it will have the same affect on people a century from now. The fact is, our perceptual system, unchanged for some 40,000 years, will remain essentially the same for a long time.

And that may be the surprising take-away from this biometric tool and architectural research: Helping people understand they are not as different as they think. Asked how VAS changed her perspective, Puttock said: “I find it fascinating that we are all essentially the same. We see the same things precognitively based on our shared evolution.” And what could be a more fitting finding for the start of the 21st century than the Age of Biology? Understanding how we look at buildings helps us to see ourselves.

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This article, by GoD-bloggers Ann + Janice, originally appeared in Common Edge, June 8, 2021. Our thanks to Martin Pedersen, editor, for suggesting, editing and publishing it.

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Students Changing Design with Biometrics

Welcome to the New Age of Biology where students familiar with biotech tools change design outcomes. That’s what happened this spring, when architecture students at Catholic University of America, suggested changes to a new dining hall on campus and used biometric software to make their case. “The students were the jurors,” said Prof Robin Puttock, who procured renderings of the new building as part of her class, Human-Centric, Evidence-based Design for WELL-being.

The students reviewed the new venue under construction, then modified the design to be more welcoming, reduce stress, and promote wellbeing, Puttock explained. Their “Reinvention” (see drawings below right) included adding skylights, hanging plants and installing red awnings over the food service locations. They Photoshopped in the changes and ran the ‘Reinvention’ and the original design through 3M Visual Attention Software (VAS).

VAS predicts how viewers take in a scene at-first-glance, in the first-three-to-five seconds before conscious viewing comes online. It creates heat maps, which glow brightest where viewers likely look most, (see images below), fading-to-black in areas ignored.

The software also outlines hot spots, showing the areas that garner the most attention as a percentage; in the images above we see how 71% of views are predicted to fall on food serving area immediately once it has red awnings, versus only 39% in the original design, without them. Red awnings in a dining hall may seem counter-intuitive – but by improving way-finding can make it easier to move through a space, reducing visitor anxiety.

CUA students Madison Schneider, Sean Devlin, Tim Lampert, Holly Thompson and Nolan Brockmeyer Photoshopped changes to the original dining hall drawings provided by architect Perkins-Eastman. Click on images to enlarge.

The design architect and the university architect agreed the student recommendations were “all positive suggestions” that would improve the look and feel of the place; the school might even incorporate the red awnings, CUA officials said. This project “really empowered 20-year-olds,” Prof Puttock noted. “They loved it!”

The idea that better understanding of the human experience promotes better design appears to be gaining traction—particularly now with software that reveals our subliminal visual experience and how it directs our behavior in and around buildings. VAS became a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop in October 2020, so the story here may be a harbinger of things to come in project reviews. It also suggests how the next generation of architects may lead the profession towards more empathetic, human-centered design.

For more information on VAS explorations of architecture, these by students at the Boston Architectural College (BAC), check out these links:

Posted in Architecture, Biology, Design, Education, Eye Tracking, Health, Neuroscience, People-centric Design, STEM | 2 Comments

Nature’s Patterns + Designs in Architecture, April 27, hosted by The National Arts Club

This free webinar, hosted by The National Arts Club, featured Nikos Salingaros, PhD and Ann Sussman, discussing the importance of patterns and ornament in architecture and their impact on our health and well-being. The speakers reviewed the science of natural patterns, including fractals, and how humans evolved to see them to successfully secure themselves in a space and regulate their own emotional states. The talk will reveal why modern 20th-century architecture lost the connection to nature with unnatural patterning and how to bring it back along with design that promotes well-being.

Sign up was at this link.

Nikos Salingaros is a professor of Mathematics at University of Texas, San Antonio. Ann Sussman, an instructor at the Boston Architectural College (BAC) is president of The Human Architecture + Planning Institute, Inc ( Both speakers are contributors to the new book, Urban Experience and Design, Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm (Routledge 2021).

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Webinar: Designing for the Subliminal Brain

Curious to understand how we see the world like animals? Want to learn how evolution presets what we focus on, and how we take in our surroundings? Here’s link for public media event from WSKG, an NPR-radio affiliate in New York, that first aired, April 13, 2021:

The talk, by Ann Sussman, builds on Freud’s insight from years ago, that the mind is indeed “like an iceberg,” with most of its activities below our awareness, yet invisibly directing our experience and behavior. It’s important information that can help you not only better understand your life but also more accurately forecast the success of a design before you build.

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How an Apple Store Grabs You … Subliminally

Apple reached a $2 trillion market valuation last summer, a clear marker of its tech prowess. But when you look at its retail store design, you see the company also excels at something else entirely: understanding people—and how to capture and manipulate their attention subliminally.

Apple retail interior design reflects, not-so-much technology, but a deep knowledge and respect for our biology and the hidden evolutionary traits that make us. With that biological foundation in place, Apple feeds the client precisely the stimuli needed to get the results that spur stratospheric success. Apple does all this without most people realizing it—capitalizing on the fact it understands human nature much better than most do.

Apple Store in Boston

For instance, above is a photo of the entry to the Apple store in downtown Boston taken last year; there is one over-arching theme driving its design and layout which has nothing to do with technology, but is all about our biology. Can you find it? Below is the same store, in the interior, in a photo from 2018. In 2021, its layout remains the same.

What’s the big design idea here? That people, even if on a mission to purchase a tech device, are most attracted to look for and focus on other people. They simply can’t help it. As a social species, our brain is hardwired for social engagement, designed to look for and focus on others, and take in faces. We do this automatically because this behavior secured our past survival and still does today. So, Apple makes it easy to see people entering the store in Boston and watch them moving throughout the space; seeing people makes it more likely a another person will follow them. As a social species, we’re essentially built for taking others in. Naturally, Apple places large faces of people on its devices and wall posters too, since no other pattern can draw human attention as fast. We subliminally attach to these mages, making us more likely to linger around them. And, no surprise, Apple came up with the idea for a glass staircase (patented by Steve Jobs in 2001); what else could get people to walk up two more flights in a retail space than a glass staircase where it’s so easy to watch others moving up and down?

Apple Store in Manhattan,
Apple Store in Manhattan with glass staircase, its design patented by Steve Jobs © Mathieu Thouvenin

It’s not just our visual bias for watching people that drives Apple design, it’s understanding other hidden human habits, like our bias for feeling that whatever we touch belongs to us. Ever wonder why Apple places so many products on tables without packaging in sight? By making its products so inviting to touch, we’re more likely to begin to feel we own them. This phenomenon is called the Endowment Effect; in past millennia, it helped secure our ancestors’ survival. Today, it may be doing us in, getting us to purchase far more than needed. “You can take the person out of the Stone Age… but you can’t take the Stone Age out of the person,” Nigel Nicholson, a UK psychologist noted in a Harvard Business Review article, ‘How Hardwired is Human Behavior?’

Apple stores use ‘The Endowment Effect’ to determine layout and drive sales

There is a huge irony here: How do you sell the most sophisticated tech-products on the planet today? By embracing the client’s most ancient and quintessential animal nature. Accept that humans haven’t changed as quickly as their technology; they can’t. Acknowledge our evolution and biology.

Other design fields would do well to follow suit; if you ever need a lesson refresher, or want to appreciate the strategy’s power, visit the local Apple store.

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Webinar: Architecture + the 21st-Century Paradigm Shift: Designing for the Subliminal Brain, February 25

This talk was part of a WELLbeing Seminar Series, organized by Prof. Robin Z Puttock, RA of the School of Architecture + Planning at Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington DC. 

In it Ann Sussman discussed how new findings about human perception – the fact we really do look at the world as an animal – change our understanding of how the built environment impacts people and even reframes the history of modern architecture.

The talk considers cartoons, such as this recent one from The New Yorker, to help explain a key fact about our brain, that it’s hardwired to be a “social engagement system” which means that it is built to connect to faces subliminally – whether real or inanimate, wherever they may be – without our conscious awareness or control.

The significance of understanding human perception as relational, no matter what we take in, will be explored further in this blog, including what it means for architecture and healthy place-making where people feel at their best and most at home.

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Seeing How Cars + People Grab Us

With eye tracking we can ‘see’ how humans take in the world. This biometric tool gives an inside view of our remarkable subliminal activity, including what’s really going on when we do something seemingly simple, like walking down a city street…revealing there’s much more going on in our bodies and brains than most realize. 

The following video shows data collected from volunteers wearing eye-tracking glasses as they walk down a street in Boston and view their surroundings.

Note the yellow dots and lines in the video (above); they reveal what eye tracking records—creating large yellow dots where the eye stops to focus, or fixate, with lines in between, or saccades, indicating motion between fixation points. Each image in the video shows eye tracking over a 10-second interval. Note how cars get so much attention; we focus on them. Our brain won’t let us do otherwise.

People also grab our attention. It is astonishing how much time we spend fixating on other folks—often without any conscious awareness or control. Seeing cars and people leads to something more—emotional arousal, a change in our subliminal internal state that can be monitored with another biometric tool called Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), which measures changes in electrical activity resulting from changes in sweat gland activity. The graph beneath the following picture charts GSR peaks, or the intensity of the arousal experience as we take in a place. Seeing a car, a person, or people, usually generates a peak.

When someone walks toward you and says your name (as what happened to the volunteer in the image above), the response is greater, causing larger peaks. At the end of the study (above) when one of the researchers touched the volunteer’s skin to remove the sensing monitor, the tallest blue peaks formed (at right).Biometric tools tell us a lot about ourselves, in real time, helping reveal the complexity of our animal nature. Interested in learning more or conducting similar research? Reach out to, the nonprofit that conducted this study; its mission is improving the understanding of the human experience of the built environment and improving its design through education and research. Here’s the email:

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Drexel Webinar: Designing for the Emotional Brain, February 2

Interested in understanding how architecture impacts us subliminally? Sign Up for the Arfaa Lecture at Drexel University with Ann Sussman on Tuesday, February 2, 2021 at 5:30 PM EST.

Georgetown, Washington, DC

Image ©Robin Puttock

The talk, called “Architecture + the 21st Century Paradigm Shift: Designing for the Emotional Brain,” is free on Zoom, and open to all who register. It includes images, like the ones above of historic Georgetown, Washington DC, which use biometric tools (in this case, 3M VAS software) to predict how people initially–at first glance–take in a scene. The numbers on the visual sequence diagram (top image) predict where people look first and the heat map (bottom image) where they tend to focus most (glows reddest).

A key take away? To better understand architecture and build better places for people, it helps to understand ourselves. Or, as Steve Jobs infamously put it, “The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

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Eye-tracking Architecture to Understand Ourselves

Here’s a video from the non-profit The Human Architecture + Planning Institute, Inc. ( showing results from a Sensing-Streetscape study that looks at how people actually experience buildings and different streets in Boston.

Eye tracking can tell us a lot about our surroundings – such as what instantly gets our attention and what doesn’t – and tells us even more about ourselves! Like letting us ‘see’ how much of our behavior, including where our eyes focus, happens subliminally, or without our conscious awareness or control.

More info about this study at: Interested in learning more about eye tracking? Reach out to them at: The non-profit’s mission is to improve the design of the built environment through education and research with cutting-edge biometric tools like this.

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Open Invitation to Urban Experience and Design Book Launch: Friday, January 15, 2021, 3PM EST

The Human Architecture and Planning InstituteTufts UEP, and Routledge invite you to a global, virtual event to celebrate the publication of the new book Urban Experience and Design: Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm on January 15, 2021, 3PM-4PM Eastern Time.

Editors Justin Hollander and Ann Sussman will be on hand, offering remarks on the book’s origins from the Tufts 2019 Ux+Design conference, and then introducing many of the book chapter contributors. Each author will then speak briefly about their chapter followed by a Q&A and book discussion. All are invited to attend the informative Webex session. To receive the free link, just send an email requesting it, to:

Urban Experience and Design: Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm embraces a biological and evolutionary perspective to explain how buildings impact us. The book explores how cognitive science and biometric tools provide an evidence-based foundation for architecture and planning. Aiming to promote the creation of a healthier and happier public realm, it describes how unconscious responses to stimuli, outside our conscious awareness, direct our experience of the built environment and govern human behavior in our surroundings.

Researchers in the US, the UK, the Netherlands, France and Iran contributed to its 15 chapters. Topics addressed range from using eye-tracking to better understand the architectural experience to the importance of seeing beauty and finding empathy in design, to how new understandings in neuroscience, specifically concerning brain trauma, rewrite the narrative of how modern architecture came to be. 

The volume invites students, architects and the public at large to see how cognitive science and biometric findings give us new 21st-century metrics for evaluating and improving designs in the built environment before they are built.

Routledge will provide a discount code for the book for event attendees. More information here:

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