‘The Postcard Test’ in Copenhagen + beyond

Screen Shot 2019-03-27 at 4.05.02 PMIf you want to know which buildings attract people in cities—head to the postcard rack. The postcard above is from Copenhagen by Danish illustrator, Martin Schwartz, who’s created a series that capture “the soul of a city in a single print.” The cards below are for sale in Amsterdam:

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And these are on the racks at the Harvard Coop, Cambridge, MA, USA:

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Note how rarely modern buildings appear—save in the distance, if at all. And what’s for sale, remarkably enough, seems curiously similar: pictures of older bilaterally-symmetrical buildings, with punched windows, distinctive top-middle-and-bottom arrangements and some color and carefully articulated details. Doesn’t seem to matter where you are—the postcards look curiously similar!

How can this be?

A postcard test can be seen as a kind of preference test—without the time and expense of actually setting up a user experience study. It shows what people like to see, and what appeals to them quickly enough they’ll actually reach out and buy it! Postcard sellers around the world can’t afford to create postcards no one buys—so they don’t.

And while the postcards obviously celebrate specific places, they also reflect something else significant and overlooked: who we are and what our internal brain architecture is set up to take in effortlessly.

One explanation for why the postcard test produces similar results around the world is because the same brain, or very similar brains, look at them: that of a bi-pedal mammal that delights in taking in diverse bi-laterally symmetrical shapes with distinct top, middle, bottom arrangements.

What’s also intriguing about the postcard test is that international travel and conference organizers appear to follow its results. They know that people aren’t likely to consider going to places that don’t please the eye instantly.

So, no surprise that a recent International Greenbuild/Europe conference held in Amsterdam* featured centuries-old canal architecture on its web page (see the photo below right) and not a modern LEED green-building or the “Edge Building” (at left) although it’s labeled the most ‘sustainable’ on the planet, and is also in the Dutch capital.

Who would want to head to the glassy techno-wonder at left, when the charming canal buildings beckon so much more effortlessly? They are easier to look at than the glass structure.

It’s all more evidence of how we are a biological and emotional species— not merely a logical one; something more architects, green builders and community designers would do well to consider when they plan our future habitat. First step, head for the postcard rack, or reach out to a postcard designer.

Fact is evolution’s real and quirky; to build the best future for us and other life on the planet, we’d do well to accept it. 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

*Bottom three slides from ‘Hardwired Secrets of Sustainability: Why Feelings Matter so Much,’ Ann presented at Greenbuild/Europe in Amsterdam, March 20, 2019.

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