How do buildings make people feel? How do they influence behavior? This talk at the ICAA (Institute for Classical Architecture & Art) in NYC reviews new findings in neuroscience and psychology and new technologies that can help us better understand architecture’s impact on people. It discusses biometric tools, including eye tracking, which follow our conscious and subliminal (or unconscious) eye movement, to explain how our experience of the built environment happens. Attendees will view videos of buildings eye-tracked, such as Boston City Hall, below to tease apart how the architectural experience actually happens.
Click on image below to see how the image above happened; it tracks the sequence of fixation or focal points (yellow circles) the viewer made along with the saccades, or the lines between them as he took in the scene, showing his brain directing him to focus on the foreground.
It’s fascinating to look at how we really look at buildings – or not.
Indeed, it can be revealing to see how modern buildings draw us to look at things around them – their surrounding trees, sky, or roof line – rather than the architecture itself. You really see this in the images below (click on them to enlarge):
This shows a mid-century modern house in Palm Springs, CA, run through biometric software which reveals how people take in a scene at-first-glance, or in the first 3-to-5 seconds which is before conscious viewing comes online. The Region-of-Interest (ROIs) diagrams, circled in red and yellow, at left, indicate how the trees and rooflines will capture the most attention, 57-to-78% of it; the Visual Sequence diagram, center, predicts the order in which the surrounding trees will draw the eye; and the heat map, above right, aggregating vision data and glowing red where people look most and fading to black in areas ignored, indicates people will predominantly focus beyond the house rather than at it.
The same things happens with another case-study of a modern home, above, this one viewed closer-in: note how the Region-of-Interest views, predominantly fall on the garden plants in front of the building or the trees behind it – rather than on the structure itself (at left), and how 3-of-the-4 Visual Sequence points are on plants or trees, in front and behind the building.
And again, we find the same thing in a third case study, this of a white mid-century modern housing complex, below; note how the orange door, highly contrasting with the white walls, immediately draws the eye, (the door is first in the Visual Sequence diagram), but most of the building is ignored. In fact, without the bright door one could make the case, people would not and could not initially focus on these residences at all.
So what’s going on here? Why do people systematically look away from the modern architecture? Humans, as the bi-pedal creatures we are, evolved to instantly, and subliminally, approach or avoid objects in their surroundings. If we hadn’t developed that immediate approach – avoidance instinct we couldn’t have survived the dynamic conditions where we evolved in the wild. The studies above show how modern homes are essentially avoidant and how our ancient brain architecture directs us to look around them rather than at them.
Traditional architecture, and just about all architecture built before modernism took over, post-WWI, is however, the opposite – approachable. Our ancient brain architecture, which hasn’t changed in 40,000 years, directs us to look right at traditional buildings and in most instances, instantly find the front door. You can really see that in contrasting photos below, run through the same biometric software (3MVAS), comparing a modern art college in Boston, (Mass College of Art) with historic architecture in Williamsburg, Virginia. Note how again the brain directs the eye around the modern building and toward the sky – again! – while the opposite phenomenon happens with the classical building; the brain is directed immediately to its front door! And these subliminal behaviors matter – indeed, we make the case they are hugely significant, because they provide the foundation for all our subsequent conscious behavior and actions.
How so? Well, ask yourself this question: which of the buildings below will more likely be on a holiday greeting card? Which will more likely be featured on a post card? Which would you ask a friend to pose in front of for a photo? If you answered, the traditional one, you are probably right; And with the biometric technologies described in the articles here, you have a new understanding as to why.
Human visual perception, (as advertisers know) happens in two phases – and the first phase is subliminal, the first 3-to-5 seconds, and that’s what retailers of all stripes need to know, and use to grab your attention initially. Understanding how our visual habits happen is key for architects, too, we’d argue, if we want to improve the quality of our shared public realm.
As to why modern architecture became avoidant, while traditional remains approachable no matter the timeframe,that’s a bigger story, summarized in previous posts on this blog, including here.
Conclusion: to design successfully for people it helps to understand how we function, and respect it, or to quote the famous Apple guy again (Steve Jobs), “The broader our understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
Thanks to Micheal Curtis, of the National Civic Art Society, for suggesting this story and originally posting it in his blog, The Beautiful Home:
For more on how Modern Architecture takes us up – to the sky, literally! Check out:
The book reviews new findings in psychology and neuroscience to help architects and planners better understand their clients as the sophisticated mammals they are, arriving in the world with built-in responses to the environment. Discussing key biometric tools to help designers ‘see’ subliminal human behaviors and suggesting new ways to analyze designs before they are built, this new edition brings readers up-to-date on scientific tools relevant for assessing architecture and the human experience of place. The book includes 40 color images of eye-tracked architecture and delves further into psychology, revealing the role trauma, specifically PTSD, post-WWI, played in the development of the paradigm for 20th-century Modern Architecture.
The 2nd edition includes images which reveal how we take in a scene initially, showing how we are hard-wired to focus on detail and ignore blankness. It further discusses how these subliminal attachments contribute to feelings of connection or disconnection (anomie) in the built environment, implicitly supporting or degrading the public realm. Eye tracking creates heat maps which glow brightest where people look most, as in image below of a NYC library, showing people and areas of contrast grab us, but not the glassy façade despite its reflections.
A key take-away? Biometric studies can tell us a lot about how we look at buildings but even more about ourselves; we are a truly social species, designed for taking each other in. Eye tracking the cover of the 1st edition really brought that home; note where people looked most—the faces, the pre-eminent objects we need to see for survival!
For Routledge Book Discount use CODE: FLY21 at link below:
“Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail.” – Leonardo da Vinci
Details really matter in architecture, and today we have the high-tech tools to show why and how to make the case quickly. For instance, below are two views of the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At right, an original Georgian building, dating from 1927, featuring symmetrical door and window details, and at left, its new addition, a modernist structure by famed Italian architect Renzo Piano, added in 2014.
Running both images through biometric software, in this instance 3M VAS (Visual Attention Software), which tracks how eyes take in a scene at first glance, we see how the older building instantly draws people in, while the newer one can’t. The images below forecast the visual sequence the eyes will follow; at right we see the focal points immediately falling around the front door of the old museum, which is where you want them to be at a public facility, while focus goes to the far edge and along the street of the newer one, effectively telling people to ignore both the door and building itself.
Biometric software makes equally revealing heat maps which glow brightest, and reddest, where people look most, fading to blue and then completely black in areas ignored. Note how the Georgian building and stair (below right) are bathed in blue and yellowish hue, keeping viewer attention away from street or sky. The opposite happens with the newer one (below left); it directs viewer attention to its edges, a street sign, the sky and away from the stair and entry, making it instantly less welcoming for a viewer or visitor.
Another useful biometric, Regions of Interest diagrams (ROIs), also called Hot Spots, forecast, as a percentage, where the brain makes people look, creating circles around areas that instantly draw the eye. Again note how 59-to-65 percent of views fall directly on the old museum (below right), and its entry, whereas 56-to-85 percent of views fall around the edges, sky and street artifacts, in the newer one (below left). This matters, revealing why it is harder for people to situate themselves in front of the new space.
Remember, even in our high-tech time, people are still animals, hard-wired for attachment, both to each other and the things we make. Successful design acknowledges our origins, and how evolution, and that struggle for survival that made us, preset our subliminal responses to surroundings including where we look first without even realizing it.
Details really matter in architecture because they draw us to a place, reflect how we attach, giving us what we need to see to secure ourselves in a space, and make us feel at home in a place. Details represent external manifestations of hidden internal brain requirements for survival in our dynamic eco-system; in sum: far from arbitrary or extraneous, details are requisite!
Given two interiors, how do people experience them and which do they prefer—the wallpapered room at left or the one with a living plant wall at right?
That’s the question designer Amanda Grinley looked to explore. Starting with a simple, stripped-down room, she wondered how adding biophilic elements, such as plants and representations of them, would change human behavior and how people felt about a space.
“This image (above) shows an interior stripped of design characteristics and serves as the control for understanding interiors that provide a better and healthier experience,” Grinley said. She ran it through biometric software, 3M VAS (Visual Attention Software) to understand how how people initially—at-first-glance—took in the scene.
VAS predicts initial responses, creating Visual Sequence diagrams that track the order people take things in, and Region of Interest (ROI) diagrams that predict, as a percentage, the area that draws the most attention; we see here 98% of views are predicted to fall on the couch and table with the rest of the room effectively ignored. And what happens with a redesign that adds a green wall and live biophilic elements?
VAS shows “the eye sequence dramatically changes to the green wall and wooden beam structure,” Grinley says; note how attention shifts from furniture to now include the wall and ceiling of the living space. Creating a room with elements that mimic nature also produces a shift – though not quite as dramatic:
Note how focus still falls on table and couch as in original image. The VAS program “allows you to glimpse into a psychological understanding of the human mind,” Grinley adds. It “picks up on where our eyes travel and how long we decide to focus on a given area of interest. With this understanding, designers have the opportunity to dramatically change where attention goes and promote a positive experience.”
And while VAS does not relay information about human emotional experience or how a place makes people feel, turning to social media tools like Instagram can do that, enriching the designer’s toolkit. Instagram, for instance, includes a polling feature allowing viewers to select their preferred image, as shown in the set-up below:
“A little over 100 people cast their vote on which interior they preferred,” Grinley said, in this poll which compared the two spaces over a 24-hour period. “The results came back with a majority wanting an interior with direct biophilic design.”
Why the preference? It connects to evolution. “Evolutionary theory explains humans evolving over a long period in natural environments so we became adept at taking in/ and preferring nature.” We don’t tend to look at blank things, and when it comes to designs that mimic nature, ones that replicate its fractal qualities, of repeatable, scalable patterns, and aren’t too dense or sparse, will be preferred.
“Thankfully, both methods can be used to promote a healthy environment,” she said, actual nature and designs that mimic natural patterns. And why is using biometrics with social media helpful? “This combination can become a powerful tool in understanding and influencing human behavior for better experiences in our built environment.”
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Our thanks to Amanda Grinley, BAC Master of Architecture student, for sharing this creative research, Spring 2021. All images courtesy Amanda Grinley.
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 attentioninsight.com.) 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.