First Impressions Aren’t What You Think

Last month DWELL published an article called “10 Homes with Distinctive Facades,” that immediately caught our attention. It showed pictures of ten unusual houses, explaining:

First impressions are lasting.

While these 10 homes have many impressive design features that set them apart from the crowd, it’s their unique facades that make a particularly memorable impression.

That set us wondering: how do people take in unusual buildings? How will passersby  look at this architecture?

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original photo: Nic Granleese

We decided to eye track the images to find out. We used the off-the-shelf eye-tracking package from 3M called VAS (Visual Attention Software), which predicts where people will look within the first 3 to 5 seconds of viewing something (or in pre-attentive processing, before their conscious brain can get into the act.)

And we learned pretty quickly that in most cases – despite their uniqueness – these buildings can’t be memorable. Why? People don’t consciously see them. Why? They can’t  because their unconscious brain which always directs and precedes conscious activity – has directed their brains to look elsewhere.

The photo above shows  the eye-tracking analysis of an addition to a Victorian house in Melbourne, Australia by OOF! Architecture. Red-lined areas indicate 98% probability of viewing attention directed at the person walking by, and one window at building’s right. With the exception of high-contrast edge areas, the probability of people ignoring the rest of the building is at or close to 100 per cent! The heat map below, presenting the same information in different fashion, glows brightest where people will likely look most, fading to blue and black where they look least or not at all. And we see here, most of ‘Hello House’ is quite literally in the dark – simply not THERE, or worth looking at, from the brain’s perspective.

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The same hold true for this unusual residence near Tokyo, Japan, by architect Russell N. Thomsen, also profiled by DWELL. Areas outlined in red indicate a 98% probability people will focus on the father and child, and 20% or less possibility they’ll look at the house behind them. The heat map also glows reddest around the family at street level, particularly around the father and child; the building itself, the software indicates is going to be again effectively ignored.

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original photo: Dean Kaufman

The image at left tracks the sequence the eyes will likely follow in the scene: fixating first on the father holding the son on his shoulders, then the mom seated at sidewalk, then the child between them and finally a motor bike in a parking space. Nary a focus on the building itself.

So, first impressions aren’t what you always think: what’s memorable in these images is the people out front – not the architecture; without the people it’s pretty clear our brains wouldn’t let us give these buildings a first, let alone, second glance.



article by ann + janice

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