Faces: The Key to Making Happy Places

Screen Shot 2020-09-01 at 7.17.49 PMDo you see faces in these gingerbread cottages in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, a popular summer retreat on this island ten miles off the coast of Massachusetts? Does it seem like they are looking at you? Built as part of a Methodist campground in the 1860s, the houses replaced the pitched tents early congregants first set up. Today over 300 of them remain on the Campground site which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2005.Screen Shot 2020-09-01 at 7.18.11 PMAnd who wouldn’t find them captivating? “The homes may be some of the most photographed in the entire country,” a 2016 article in Country Living reports. “Is there a more charming neighborhood in all of New England?” asks a recent post in New England Today. And of course, the cottages grab your eye, we’re a social species, hardwired to take in anything and everything that is face-like.

Pareidolia, the term for the very human phenomenon of seeing faces in everyday objects, is at work here. This visual illusion is an artifact of our evolution and secures our survival, explains a recent article in MedicalXpress. “We process these “fake” faces using the same visual mechanisms of the brain that we do for real ones,” it notes. “Our brain has evolved to facilitate social interaction, and this shapes the way that we see the world around us.”

So, no surprise, that the gingerbread houses have been a favorite of Vineyard visitors for years; our brain sees them as waiting to see us! As the pareidolia researcher Dr. Colin Palmer says: “We know that the object doesn’t really have a mind, but we can’t help but see it as having mental characteristics like a ‘direction of gaze’ because of mechanisms in our visual system that become active when they detect an object with basic face-like features.”

Sensing face-like cottage facades makes us feel at home in a space, keeps us coming back and makes the visits memorable.  In the Vineyard, there’s another good place to appreciate the power of pareidolia, moving beyond architecture; it’s at Toad Rock, a historic site on Native American, Wampanoag, tribal land, in Acquinnah, twenty miles to the west.

Toad Rock

Here’s a place people have visited for thousands of years, and once there, you get why; it provides that one design element people most need to see to secure themselves in a space: a face.

The upshot? To make memorable places where people want to be, build in faces. Mother Nature, after all, has preset what we most need to see and we all pay a price, always, when we ignore her intent!


More posts on our face-bias here:

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The Case Against All-Glass Facades

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original images©Becky Chen

The pictures tell the story. And make the case. Biometric studies explain why. At left, is a photo of MassArt Design and Media Center, (c. 2016), a public college of applied art in downtown Boston; at right, the George Wythe House (c.1754), a historic site in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Which building most readily grabs your eye?

Where do you think people will look ?

It you guessed the building at right, the Georgian brick one and not the all-glass facade, you’re right! Biometric studies, using software which predicts how people view a scene initially, in the first 3-to-5 seconds, before conscious viewing comes online, show why.

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The VAS (Visual Attention Software) study creates region of interest (ROI) diagrams which reveal where viewers’ gaze likely goes, and indicate with red outlines that 75 to 82 percent of them take in the sky and areas around the glassy college building, rather than the structure itself! This is precisely opposite what happens with the old brick building, where 98 percent of views fall directly on the front facade and adjacent fence!

Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 8.17.23 PMThe study’s heat maps above, aggregating predicted viewing data in color, glow reddest where people look most, and fade to dark grey and black in areas ignored, again showing how the brain directs views away from most of the glass building, and does the opposite with the brick one. Note how none of the historic house shows up black, and its door and many of its windows glow red, suggesting they’ll implicitly draw the eye. Even the house chimneys appear bright blue, and will draw attention unconsciously in pre-attentive mode.

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The study’s visual sequence diagrams, tracking the order the brain directs viewers to take in the scene initially, again indicate how, without conscious awareness or control, people focus around the edges of the glass building rather than at it. This indicates why approaching the building will be confusing, and finding the front door a challenge! With the Wythe House, on the other hand, the brain directs viewers to look right at the front door first! Amazing! That’s just what you’d want to see approaching a house or art school. And in the historic building, the brain keeps the eye focusing on the front facade, its architecture promoting a viewing pattern that’s more coherent, anticipating the viewer’s needs.

How can this be? “Facades impact architectural experience,” says Becky Chen, a student at the Boston Architectural College (BAC) who put together this study, and generously offered to share it with us here. “In my opinion, people don’t like looking at glass facades.” In this study, she used biometric software to reveal the hidden, pre-attentive traits that determine our architectural experience, showing how much pattern, color, areas of contrast, and different materials draw the eye instantly, which in turn directs our conscious behavior and experience of buildings.

So, what’s the issue with glass facades? The study suggests they lack the characteristics we evolved and still need to see, to secure us in a place, and ground us in space. We can’t focus or fixate on them; they don’t provide enough to look at. “Modern architecture can have the glass,” Becky Chen said. “But should have the elements of color and pattern to emphasize the space and attract people’s eyes.”


More posts on the Issue with Glass Facades:



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Empathy in Design: Measuring How Faces Make Places

Since 2015, Ragusa, Sicily has hosted FestiWall, an international art festival devoted to enhancing the public realm and improving citizen engagement with the modern section of an old city. Here are two views of a residential tower before and after FestiWall. Which one grabs your eye?

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Ragusa, Italy. Original image © FestiWall

We’ll guess you’re drawn to the one with the art at right. Running the image through biometric software predicts you’ll immediately focus on the man in the mural.

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Analysis with 3M VAS (Visual Attention Software) showing how people take things in.

And that’s what the analyses above shows. Note how the heat map, at left, which glows reddest where people look most, is on the face; the regions of interest diagram which aggregates predicted views, indicates 98% of viewers look straight at his head. And the gaze path, at right, shows people look first at the face, then briefly away before focusing right back on it again within the first 3-to-5 seconds.

And what happens if the building remains as is, untouched – blank? Not much! 

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Analysis with 3M VAS (Visual Attention Software)

The brain directs you to ignore the building. The grey wall simply cannot get attention. Note how the heat map, above left, shows up black, with views going around it; the regions of interest diagram, in center, makes focus shift to the sides, and the gaze path indicates people’s attention moves to the street below, never once settling on the tower, even though it’s directly centered before the viewer.

“The festival’s main goal is to open a dialogue between urban spaces and communities using city’s walls and street art as a medium.” say its founders Vincenzo Cascone and Antonio Sortino.This could be the first step towards a new perspective and a new development of the city.”

These striking efforts caught the attention of Caterina D’Amica and Isabel Gorham, students at the Boston Architectural College (BAC) who were interested in the way different murals engage the public, and which ones do so most effectively. They presented their findings, including the scenes above, last month.

“We compared and contrasted abstract FestiWall murals, with those with faces, with the original blank facades,” D’Amica and Gorham said. “The most successful murals, where attention is not dispersed, are the ones containing a face, a human form, and people in general.”

“Where the murals represent a person or a face, the attention is focused almost exclusively on the face or faces,” they reported, supporting the science on the face-bias in human perception. “Our brain is hardwired to find them; it’s a survival instinct.” Blank buildings, on the other hand, are “avoidant, and the eye does not pay attention to them, our vision diverted to edges, contrast, strong colors and light,” they added.

FestiWall murals are also a great example of empathy in design; the art that works best acknowledges first and foremost what we are built to see – a version of ourselves!  This hidden brain architecture directs our lives including our experience of buildings and our surroundings – whether we like it or not – and it always will!

It all goes to show how to best promote empathy in design: start with us, respecting the hidden traits that make us human.

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– – – –
Thanks to CommonEdge.org for reposting this article on their non-profit site July 1, 2020.
Thanks to Archdaily.com for reposting this article July 3, 2020.
Thanks to Archdaily.com for translating into Portuguese and posting, July 7, 2020.
Thanks to ArchNewsNow.com for linking to this article on July 9, 2020.
Posted in Architecture, City Planning, Design, Eye Tracking, Neuroscience, People-centric Design, STEM | 1 Comment

Empathy in Design: Measuring the Impact of Biophilia

Is home your happy place? Does it make you feel warm and welcome?

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Interiors displayed on Instagram, @YellowTrace

Now that a pandemic has turned our homes into multipurpose spaces that double as offices, gyms, schools, playgrounds and safe havens from a virus, feelings matter more than ever. Can we use this moment to improve design, become more aware of what people need, and focus on how design makes us feel?

By paying special attention to people’s feelings, we can build empathy into the design process.

Plenty of magazines, catalogs, newsletters and streaming services have jumped on the bandwagon recently. Instead of articles about restorations, renovations and rehabs, they now ask, “How Does Your Home Make You Feel?” and give tips on “How to Adjust your Workspace to Fit You!”

The business world picked up on the trend a while ago. Harvard Business Review published a series on Emotional Intelligence including a book on Empathy (in 2017) to address the “human side of professional life.” And Apple Computer’s success has long-rested on prioritizing human feelings and experience; they routinely hire neuroscientists to help do so. Sites on Instagram like @ YellowTrace (images at right and below) encourage people to share their feelings about place and offer the opportunity to compare and contrast designs to see which they prefer and why.  Here we can learn what makes design empathetic.

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Preferred interiors on Instagram featuring  biophilic elements.

That’s what architectural students, Reem Alzayani and Sergio Ramos, did when they presented their research this month at the Boston Architectural College (BAC).*

Setting up a poll to compare preferences for living spaces on their Instagram site, they found that those rooms supporting biophilia, our innate tendency to want to connect with nature, were most preferred.

“The most successful images from the poll had plenty of biophilic elements, which most of the people that participated in the poll preferred over their counter images,” Alzayani and Ramos said. 

They also showed how spaces with low preference ratings could become more empathic by adding biophilic elements. Using 3M’s Visual Attention Software which tracks how our eyes take in a scene pre-attentively or unconsciously, in the first 3-to-5 seconds, the research demonstrated how adding biophilic elements can change how the eyes take in a scene – and contribute to an empathetic experience.

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Above, top left, is the original scene, below it, the same space with added biophilic elements. The heatmaps at immediate right, glowing reddest where people look most, indicate people take in the space more evenly with the added skylight and plant arrangements. In the visual sequence diagram, we can numerically follow the eye movements predicted during the first 3-to-5 seconds – confirming how people will immediately glance more evenly throughout the room with more greenery.

“Our focus was on the overall atmosphere of the space rather than creating a focal point in the interior space,” the team said. They used the same approach with the study below; “by adding more/bigger greener plants and changing the color of the light pendant we distributed the attention on the image.”

Screen Shot 2020-05-25 at 8.56.08 AMLooking at the heat map, visual sequence and regions of interest diagrams (which show in red outline where most viewers, 77-95%, look), we see how attention moves away from the hanging lights towards the greener elements in the room. This may be a reason why, in follow-up interviews, viewers found the photoshopped images more inviting.

Biometric studies like this coupled with preference studies and social media tools can help understand how design impacts us and uncover innate preferences. They aide our ability to design with empathy – helping to create spaces that make us feel warm and welcomed and safe and healthy. And what could be more relevant for our current moment? 

Next up: More on Empathic (or Empathetic) Design, a look at faces + fractals, key patterns that encourage it.

* Research done for BAC’s Architecture & Cognition class which explores new findings in neuroscience and new technologies that help us better understand architectureʼs impact on people. Ann Sussman, RA, instructor, more info: BAC and annsussman.com

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Do the ‘Fish Experiment’ to ‘See’ What We’re Built to See

Did you ever wonder about the strange way humans take in the world? Like the animals we are, of course! A quick way to see this is with the ‘Fish Experiment.’ Look at the images below and note where your eyes go—without any effort on your part!

Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 8.44.26 PM Next this:
Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 8.44.44 PMAnd these:Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 8.44.58 PMNow, note what happens when you add a human face, someone famous, like CNN news anchor, Anderson Cooper:Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 9.38.47 PMOr here:Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 9.38.04 PMOr here:Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 10.01.15 PMEven a well-known newsman like Cooper can’t get your attention like a red plastic fish, if the guy’s upside down. The brain’s not wired to let that happen. We’re a social species built for relationships, so much so that the brain makes it a priority to immediately focus and engage with any pattern arranged like a face—when it’s right side up.

And so, turn the tables, and Anderson becomes engaging again! Suddenly, riveting!Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 10.55.06 PMWhy should architects and designers care? We can be as creative as we like, of course, but will always be most successful once we realize nature’s bias—what she wants us to see and incorporate—the primal pattern—where she always, like it or not, makes us focus first.

Thanks to David Brussat, of Architecture Here and There for linking to this post, 4-05-20.

For more on the ‘primal pattern’ check out:


Posted in Neuroscience, Patterns, People-centric Design, Primal Vista | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Public Realm: What Cars Took Away + Never Gave Back


Where would you rather be? The main street above or the one below?


We’d guess you’ll pick the one most at top, even though these images show the very same street — photographed about 100 years apart!

It’s Commonwealth Avenue in West Concord, MA about 15 miles west of Boston. What’s changed? The cars everywhere! In 1906, the approximate age of the postcard up top, the space was welcoming and inviting with the horse and buggy in the distance. Today, the color photo shows the same street can’t quite compete; it’s too full of cars, making the place feel congested — like its mostly for motor vehicles and not for people at all.

No one would think of making a postcard of West Concord today looking down the same street. And guess what? None exists!

And that’s the loss we all carry — not just charming postcards of  local places — but the very idea of the public realm, inviting spaces that draw everyone in, encouraging people to safely walk about, linger and meet up.

Cars gave us mobility, and we paid an incredibly steep and rarely-spoken-of price: the loss of the spaces we most need to see and be in — and even the very notion that such places could exist!

What’s most surprising about the old postcard? Showing it to other people and seeing their surprise at how nice the local street once looked!  We live in such a car-brained world, people simply can’t imagine places without them. Cars vanquished the public realm along with our ability to create spaces that we most need to see and be in to be at our best. To build a healthier future, we’d do well to remember what cars took away, how the spaces are still needed, and ways to bring them back.

The image below shows the back of the post card, with postage set at 1 cent domestically, which was the price before WWI. Imagine!


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Why Buildings Need ‘Eyes’

As a social species, we are built to see eyes, so we look for them all the time — everywhere — without conscious awareness or control. When we find them, they grab our attention, anchoring us in space, securing us to a place. So, it’s no surprise that tour buses driving through historic Cambridge, Massachusetts, always stop in front of the Harvard Lampoon building (below c.1909), home of the university’s satirical campus weekly. This building looks like it’s waiting to see you. How else to make a tourist trip memorable!

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The Harvard Lampoon Building with VAS analysis ©geneticsofdesign.com; original image ©wikimedia

A quick assessment with biometric software, (3M VAS), predicts people return the favor, instantly focusing on its round-eye-like windows.  Visual Attention Software, or VAS, predicts where people look ‘at-first-glance’, the first 3-to-5 seconds they take in a scene, and creates ‘heat maps’ that glow brightest where people look most, (central image above), and visual sequence diagrams, (above right), predicting the order they’ll likely look at things — showing again how much the eyes have it. (Yes, a mouth-like door gets attention too, but notice how VAS predicts our brain directs us to check out both of the ‘eyes’, ‘at-first-glance’, before conscious awareness kicks in.)

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Greenway Mural with VAS analysis ©lingchuanmeng

The same holds true for murals on buildings like the one above, temporarily displayed on a blank wall in Boston’s Greenway, a few years ago. We see here how the heat map, at top right, glows brightest in the eye area while the red outlines of the ‘areas-of-interest’ diagram below it, show 75% of viewers instantly focus on the central part of the portrait which includes an oval eye. 

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Face eye tracked with iMotions software ©geneticsofdesign.com

Photos of people show the eye bias too, with the ‘heat map’ on the face above created with iMotions eye-tracking software, in an on-screen 15-second testing interval. These eye-tracking studies also reveal something else important and too-often overlooked: how human perception is dyadic — it’s relational; we’re built to see each other and need to do so for survival including regulating our emotions on a daily basis. So, like breathing and eating, we arrive in the world hardwired to check out other faces all the time, everywhere, focusing on eyes to get the most critical information about our surroundings. And, from our brain’s million-year-old perspective, it does not matter if the ‘face’ in front of us is fake, or in an inanimate building facade, it’s going to check it out.

Why does this matter? Because to understand and build architecture successfully today, it’s important to acknowledge our ‘secret’ human biases that secured our survival over millennia.  A famous line from William Faulkner comes to mind:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Remember that saying if you want to understand how people really ‘see’ architecture, and what people still need to see and feel to be at their best, today. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Thanks to Lingchuan Meng, Boston Architectural College (BAC) B.Arch. candidate, and a student in Architecture & Cognition, 2018, class, for the VAS images of the Greenway mural.

Thanks to The Greenway Conservancy, News for linking to this post, November 13, 2019.

Thanks to ArchNewsNow.com for linking to this post, November 14, 2019.

Thanks to CNU (Congress for the New Urbanism) Public Square blog for publishing this post, November 18, 2019.

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We’re Waiting for You!

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Stay tuned for more on face-i-tecture, and how faces+’eyes’-make-places, this fall!

Ann + Janice

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Five Big Ideas for Designing Today’s Cities

Genetics of Design collaborated with Tufts University on the five big ideas presented here in this week’s TuftsNow and at the Ux+Design conference in April.

Screen Shot 2019-10-22 at 12.56.25 PMToo fun! Collaboration’s key. More info here: https://now.tufts.edu/articles/five-big-ideas-designing-today-s-cities

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“Your Brain on Glassy Skyscrapers” continued…

Last month Hacker News made our recent post on Boston’s new glassy Seaport district and its disappointing design their top story. That sent over 5,000 readers to GeneticsofDesign.com from over 100 countries in under two hours!

Given the broad international interest, we decided to show more images that drive home the key point: it’s very difficult for the human brain to take in big, blank, glassy, boxy buildings. It’s simply not what we evolved to do. That’s something architects, developers, community leaders, and the general public need to know if we want to make memorable places, ones where people feel happy and healthy, and at their best.

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Above are more images from Boston’s newest business neighborhood, the Seaport District, sitting between the city’s airport and financial district. Using 3M’s VAS (Visual Attention Software), which predicts where people look in the first 3-to-5-seconds — before conscious thinking comes online — you quickly ‘see’ how your brain’s hard-wired to ignore the big, blank sheets of glass! The brain doesn’t direct your eyes there – so they don’t go, thus rendering the buildings essentially irrelevant! Remember, you can’t make happy thoughts and memories around places your brain directed your visual system not to take in!

Images at top left show heat maps which glowing brightest where people look most, are reddest around the details in the photos, the bicycle and lamppost and its shadow -not around the looming architecture behind which is shrouded in black: ignored! We can also see how the visual fixation sequence (middle images) focuses on these details and how they’re highlighted, encircled in red, as the prime regions of interest, garnering 76%-to-98% of viewers visual attention first.

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And what’s true up-close, holds true, further out. Here is another view, pulled back, of the Seaport, showing the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) and neighboring glass tower. Again note how the glass block’s ignored, not much attention paid to the ICA either – it’s the contrasting white playground elements in a park that draw the eye.

Again, reiterating a theme in this blog, we discover how our ancient brain architecture, including how we’re hardwired to seek out faces and discrete areas of contrast, directs our experience of the modern built environment, and in fact, sets parameters for its design. When we ignore this ancient brain architecture, we all pay a price, creating places that are actually non-places, stressful for humans to see and be in, that belie our humanity, both today and into the future.

all photos ©geneticsofdesign.com

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