‘The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture’ from CommonEdge.org

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Click on images above to read this recent post on CommonEdge.org, a non-profit site dedicated to improving the design of our built environment.

The piece is co-authored by Ann Sussman and Katie Chen. Ann also co-authors this GoD (GeneticsofDesign) blog with Janice Ward. And as co-bloggers, Sussman+Ward have agreed to disagree on this article’s contents and conclusions. That’s a first for them, and we’ll give more feedback and expand the discussion—as interest arises.

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Building Places Nobody Wants to Be

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 9.25.25 PMHere’s a question. In the photos above of two urban arcades, which one would you rather be in?

The image at left or the one at right? Don’t think too much – just choose!

In the last 24 months, I’ve had the chance to pose that same question to more than 1000 people while giving talks around the country.

And both the responses and response rates astonish. Quickly, without collaboration, everyone picks the image at right: the arcade in central Paris along the Rue de Rivoli, designed by Napoleon’s architects more than two centuries ago. (My hunch is you’d pick that too.) No one wants to be in the covered walkway in central Boston, built as part of a city court house about twenty years ago.

Here’s another preference test:

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 9.24.47 PMWhich street would you rather walk down? Both form part of historic centers, the one on the left in Brooklyn, NYC, the other, at right, in Ontario, Canada?

I’ve shown this slide to more than 500 people. And again both responses and response rates astonish. Quickly, without collaboration, everyone picks the image at right: Market Street in the colonial port city of Kingston, Ontario. Given the choice, nobody wants to walk past recently refurbished Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, New York, an educational venue surrounding 19th-century historic homes.

How can this be? How do 500 or 1000 people so quickly make a decision about where to go, and all end up in the same place – without even speaking with each other?

The simple answer is our primate brains, hardwired to keep us safe, continuously and unconsciously scan the environment for survival. The images chosen instantly feed the brain the stimuli needed to feel secure; the ones rejected don’t. Rue de Rivoli and Market Street give our brain what’s needed to move forward feeling at our best. The Boston Courthouse and Heritage Center in Brooklyn can’t.

Of course how our brains select stimuli without conscious input is a larger question as is what our brains are preset to look for (some of this taken up elsewhere in this blog). Biometric studies add insight here; below is an eye-tracked version of the above street scenes created with 3M’s Visual Attention Software which indicates what gets people’s attention in pre-attentive processing (the first 3-5 seconds) taking in a scene.

Screen Shot 2017-08-16 at 7.56.39 PM The ‘heat maps’ above glow brightest where people look most fading to black in areas ignored. The results suggest one reason the Brooklyn streetscape isn’t favored is our unconscious brain won’t let us look at it. And that’s huge because unconscious brain activity always lays the foundation for conscious behavior. It guides it. We can’t move towards a place our pre-attentive processing has determined is to be ignored.

There are larger takeaways too, and here’s a key one: to build a sustainable future we need to build places people want to be, not places they don’t.

And this means we need to perennially pose one salient question: are we making places people will want to be – or not?

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Seeing Red

I see a red door and I want it painted black
– Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

red-doorAside from the Rolling Stones desire to “Paint it Black,” most people are attracted to red doors. Not only is red a look-at-me color, red doors are important culturally, historically and, now, scientifically.

Both the Red Door Spa and Talbot’s clothing chains use red doors as icons to attract customers. Red doors mean good luck to the Chinese, a paid-off mortgage to the Scotts, and a source of energy to Feng Shui followers.

Traditionally, red doors have represented safe havens. The Old Testament refers to a smear of red lamb’s blood placed above a doorway to offer protection for Israelite children against a plague coming to Egypt. In early America, a red door stood for welcome, a symbol of hospitality and a place to rest. During the American Civil War, red doors were rumored as refuges for travelers along the Underground Railroad.

The color red influences our behavior, says Scientific American; everything from your behaviour in the workplace to your love life, according to a BBC report on color psychology, the study of hues on human behavior. We associate red with extremes: love and hate, life and death—red hearts, blushing faces, scarlet letters, stop signs. Red activates our appetite so much that restaurants often use it on walls, table cloths, napkins, logos, menus and advertising.

So the house with the red door in Figure 1 piqued our interest when we saw it in Dwell Magazine’s list of “10 Homes with Distinctive Facades.” Those facades purportedly make those homes memorable. And we wondered, would eye tracking support the color psychology? Does the facade or the color red make that home memorable?


Using eye tracking software from 3M called VAS (Visual Attention Software) that predicts where people will look within the first 3 to 5 seconds of viewing a photo (before their conscious brain can react), we examined the Belgian house with the red door designed by dmvA architects. Figure 2 shows the eye tracking heat map of its façade. The red areas glow brightest where people likely look most.


In Figure 3 the eye tracking analysis’ red outlines indicate a 92% probability of viewing attention directed at the red door, 89% at the neighbor’s red roof, and 67% at the contrasting edge of the house. The numbers in Figure 4 show the viewing sequence with the red door just where we’d expect: first.

We live “in a world dominated by images and colour. Our sense of vision largely dictates how we perceive the environment around us,” says an article in The Conversation, Making Sense of Evolution. And human vision, which is dependent on light reflection to the retina that allows us to see color, responds to red light most. The retina contains photoreceptors called cones; and about 64 % of cones respond to red light, about 33% to green light, and about 2 % to blue light. When light hits the cones, a signal is sent from the optic nerve to the visual cortex of the brain which processes the information.

The eye tracking results of the house with the red door show that only the red door was memorable because our brains (without our conscious control) look for the color red first, then the edges of the building.

So, if you want the front of your house to get noticed, don’t follow Mick’s advice. Instead, paint it red.

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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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Eye-Tracking Cincinnati on-the-fly

Recently in Cincinnati to speak at an AIA Vision event for young architects, I had the opportunity to eye track a local street scene. I shared my findings with the area residents later that evening. Here they are:Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 4.11.16 PM

The photo directly above, at left, I took with my iPhone walking down Walnut Street, passing the Contemporary Arts Center, a relatively-new art museum by Zaha Hadid (2003), and then, further down the street (top photo, left), turn of the century beaux-arts office buildings. Back at the hotel I uploaded the images to eye-tracking software (3m.VAS.com) on my laptop∗ – and learned about what I’d expected: people ignore the new public art museum.


Photos in center of slide give us a clue. They show where people most likely look in ‘pre-attentive’ processing (or without conscious attention), tracking the path their eyes follow the first 3-5 seconds they take in the scene, which is before their conscious mind can get into the act. We see that viewers first focus down the street, effectively looking past the art center – fixating instead on the older buildings down the block (fixation 1, 2). They then look at the brightly colored mural at building in front of the museum, (fixation 3) and finally they settle on an orange hazard cone (fixation 4) on the sidewalk.

The regions outlined in yellow further delineate the areas that receive most attention and the probabilities they’ll get it; with areas not outlined of little or no interest at all.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 2.48.47 PMAccording to this analysis, there’s a 66% probability that people will look down the street, past the new art building; 64% chance they’ll look at the bright colors on the building opposite the art center – and 55% they’ll take in the sidewalk cone.  The probability they’ll ignore the art museum itself is close to 100% since most of it’s in grey, falling outside the outlined regions.

What’s the problem here?

The architecture of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center simply doesn’t fit what the human brain needs or expects to see to move forward; the eye won’t and can’t find a place to fixate on the blank building  – so our brain makes us look elsewhere for a place where it can. No surprise it finds fixation points on the older office buildings down the block; here, as the top row of photos in the slide above indicate, the eye easily attaches to the contrasting patterns of the punched windows and other architectural details. So that’s where our brain unconsciously directs our attention and moves us to go.

Perhaps sensing a need to bolster public appeal, Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center added Metrobot, a 27-foot tall robot by artist Nam June Paik, in permanent installation by its front door in 2014, a decade after opening.

And as the ‘heat map’ below indicates, glowing brighest where people look most, the sculpture does indeed grab attention, successfully directing viewers to look towards at least a part of the building their brains would otherwise have them ignore entirely.

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∗ 3M VAS software can also be run directly as an app on your phone.

– by Ann with ‘seed’ idea from Janice






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The ‘Joy’ Graph – Measuring Feelings on the Fly

Does your morning commute spark joy?

Probably not, particularly if you exit the subway and face a blank wall. Add some artwork to that facade, however, and your internal joy meter will likely jump!

Check out the existing conditions in Davis Square, Somerville MA.


The picture is of the view people see when exiting the Somerville subway. The attached graph was generated by a biometric tool—facial expression analysis software—which instantly records how facial muscles move in a 14-second interval. The software produces real-time ‘joy graphs’ tracking the facial movements of people viewing the picture, specifically when people smile. In this case, the flat blue line in the graph suggests that at this stage of the commute, not that many people feel happy in Somerville.

Now check out what happens when we add a Matisse-like mural to the same facade.


We get a lot more bounce in the ‘joy’ graph, it seems denser, telling us people smiled more and really do like it when Matisse greets them instead of blank concrete.

Welcome to the ‘Age of Biology,’ as the 21st Century is now labelled (by the OECD) We live in a remarkable time where biometric tools can reliably register our shifting emotional states and when the collection of real-time data on how architecture makes people feel and behave is feasible.  Talk about a paradigm shift.  In today’s world if you don’t talk about human emotions and behaviors engendered by design, you are passé.  20th Century. Old-fashioned! (Measuring human behavior is where it’s at now.)

These images come from our recent biometric pilot study where we asked 24 volunteers to view photos of Somerville, MA, to learn which cityscapes people liked most. We focused on ‘joy’ over other emotions including sadness, surprise, anger, fear, disgust, and contempt, hypothesizing that joy correlates best with what people would describe as a happy experience in the urban environment.

Below are other images from our pilot-study.


The photo above shows existing conditions in Somerville’s Davis Square which people didn’t seem happy about, judging from the relatively flat joy graph. The photo below includes a bouncier joy graph when we add more Matisse-like art to the mix.


The larger blue areas on the ‘joy’ graph suggest that people felt more ‘joy’ taking in the colorful mural on the central building than with existing conditions, the blank gray wall.

Of course, to nail these findings we need to do further testing (with more volunteers and added biometric tools). Nevertheless, we think the trend is clear, and planners and architects, community leaders and developers should take note: people don’t like blank walls. They make folks unhappy. Design and rehabilitate accordingly.

And know that, with the arsenal of biometric tools expanding, we can now reliably figure out how to bring more ‘joy’ back to our cities—maybe even the morning commute.


Special thanks to Boston office of iMotions (imotions.com) for providing access to the state-of-the-art software and biometric study expertise.

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Why Eye Track Architecture? To See How ‘Fixations Drive Exploration’

What happens when you eye track architecture? The City of Somerville provided us with some views of Davis Square to find out. Here’s one picture of an existing building there surrounded by parking.

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And here’s the same image we photoshopped with a colorful Matisse-like print:


We eye tracked both of these images in a pilot-study in January at GeneticsofDesign.com to better understand how people take-in their surroundings.  We learned quickly that people ignore blank facades and immediately focus on areas of high contast and detail. See heat map below, which glows reddest where people looked most, often without conscious control – they simply don’t realize what their brains are making them do:Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 11.27.08 AM

Notice how in image with the blank facade, people scan around the parking lot a lot and also put their energy to checking out the cars and buidings down the side street. With the Matisse-image affixed to the building, however, everything shifts and people experience the street in a completely different fashion – less randomly, spending far less time looking down the side street.Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 11.27.40 AM

Here are the heat map images side by side. We asked two groups of university students (one at Tufts, the other at Northeastern) last month which place they’d prefer to spend time; where would they feel safer hanging out ? Hands down both sets of students voted to stand in front of the mural than the building with the blank facade. In each instance, the students made the decision quickly, unanimously, in under a minute.Screen Shot 2017-03-08 at 11.12.12 AMHow did this happen?  “Fixations drive exploration,” explains a cognitive scientist we know. The eye is hardwired to focus on specific objects in the environment; if it finds none the brain goes on alert – until it finds something to attach to. The mural provides a place for instant ‘pre-attentive’ (or unconscious) eye attachment, it fits what our brain wants to see and needs to see to emotionally regulate and move forward.  The students immediately picked up on it; so did the 24 people in our pilot-study. It all makes sense, of couse, once you remember that as an evolutionary artifact, we see the world Mother Nature wants us to see in the way she wants us to see it – and she is no libertarian, but a control freak.


Thanks to Janice M. Ward, Alex Purdy, for their exemplary teamwork running this study; and to the iMotions team for their help and game-changing software, as well as the City of Somerville for providing us with the sunny urban images in the middle of winter.

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