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 | 3 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.

Posted in Design, Neuroscience, People-centric Design, STEM | Leave a comment

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 graphs beneath each image in this post 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:

Posted in Biology, Design, Eye Tracking, Walkability | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Architecture, City Planning, Design, Eye Tracking, Neuroscience, Walkability | Leave a comment

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:

Posted in Architecture, Biology, City Planning, Design | Tagged | 3 Comments

Embracing Nature on a Rail Trail

How does this picture make you feel: Scared? Happy? Or in awe of nature’s ability to co-exist with humans?

We often disrupt Nature, and she, in her wordless way, adapts. Here, a tree wraps around a concrete marker along an old rail line, almost upending it, showing how out of place it really is in her forest.

And here, she directs the bark to devour an old metal sign along the same route, effectively swallowing it, making it finally disappear! Nature doesn’t need boundary markers, when after all, everything is connected. Everything counts.

Even at the end of a lifecycle, as the fallen tree below shows, Nature provides fertile ground for a carpet of green moss to root and flourish, sustaining robust growth of flora + fauna on the forest floor.

We have so much to learn from Nature! All we have to do is look. (She leaves no trash; she reuses and recycles everything.)  Given the current state of the world, it really does seem it’s time to appreciate, embrace and adapt to Nature’s systems too.

The top two photos here are from the Reformatory Branch Trail, in Concord, MA USA; the bottom one, also in Concord, is along the Old Rifle Range. Stop by some time; both are free, open to the public and have much to teach.

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