How do people look at buildings? What immediately draws their eye; do some buildings make people feel happy – and others sad?
Researchers at theHapi.org (the Human Architecture + Planning Institute Inc) ask these kind of questions and use state-of-the-art eye-tracking software to answer them. This month, the nonprofit’s inviting participants to take part in a series of studies using iMotions-online software, to track how we actually look at buildings exploring both our conscious and subliminal responses. The project starts with this 4-minute Building Study#1 – now online!
All are welcome to take part, simply click on link below:
Anyone with a laptop or PC with webcam, can sign in; on a Mac, link to it from Google Chrome or Firefox (and it’s best to do so in a quiet space with minimal distraction.)
theHapi.org’s Building Studies investigate the way that humans actually interact with buildings – moving beyond aesthetic opinion – to collect biometric proof about why and how humans respond the way we do to built environments, establishing criteria for building better places, and improving our health and well-being in the public realm.
For, as Dr. Claudia Miller, of the University of Texas School of Medicine has famously stated: “Architects have a greater ability to improve public health than medical professionals.” We think so too, and believe this important research establishes the metrics for doing so.
If you’re interested in learning more, or have ideas for a study or collaboration, feel free to reach out to theHapi.org. The email: contact@theHapi.org
State-of-the-art biosensors, including eye tracking and facial expression analysis software, help us confront something not always considered – our intrinsic animal nature – and how it directs our behavior subliminally much more than most realize.
When applied to understanding our experience of the built environment, these game-changing technologies let us ‘see’ the unseen, breaking down how our interaction with environments happen. They reveal the hidden mechanisms driving our experience, making us understand why we find some places stressful and intrinsically avoid them, while sense others as the opposite, inviting and approachable.
…”When you know the mechanism, you can use that understanding in countless ways to drastically improve the human condition,” explains Nadine Burke Harris, MD, in her remarkable book on human behavior. “That is how you spark a revolution. You shift the frame, you change the lens, and all at once the world is revealed, and nothing is the same.”
Interested in learning more about this revolution or join? Check out this free podcast on exploring Architecture with iMotions, on April 28th, 2022:
Our forthcoming book, Face-i-tecture, How Faces Make Places, shows the power of face-like facades to win us over—worldwide. Up first, a trip to the Scottish Highlands, a cool, wet destination, where finding shelter becomes important after a day-long hike. Far from the bustle of Edinburg or Glasgow, visitors find it here in “bothies” which are unlocked huts, open to all, free of charge – like the one below.
Note this bothy’s welcoming ‘face’; you can easily ‘see’ its windows as eyes, the door, a nose and the steps, perhaps, as a mouth.
Run the photo through 3M’s Visual Attention Software (VAS), a biometric tool that approximates where people look at-first-glance, or in the first 3-to-5 seconds, and you start to see our animal nature at work. VAS predicts how we take things in subliminally, before conscious-viewing comes online, creating images where people look, called Visual Sequence Diagrams that track first, second, third and fourth fixations or focal points:
Note how the symmetrical windows draw us in immediately, then the building edge and roof line. And what happens if the bothy loses the eye-like windows? We Photoshopped them out to see – and learned fast:
The building becomes less welcoming. We simply can’t look at it the same way. The bothy doesn’t draw us in as easily. The heatmaps, below, which aggregate viewing data, glowing reddish where people look most, fade to black in areas ignored. Note how the windowless cottage is more in the black, with our fixations directed to its roof; while the one with windows catches our attention drawing our eye more evenly over its façade. This makes it seem more there, present as though waiting ‘to see’ us. Which is, of course, exactly what you’d want to see and feel after hours of hiking the Highlands – a bothy waiting for you to show up!
. Welcome to face-i-tecture! – that under-acknowledged yet powerful attribute of the built environment that make us feel at home in a place without our realizing it. 😉
When I saw this box on the store shelf, I had to get one!
The cottages seemed warm and welcoming, as if waiting to see me, suggesting a cozy community. What could be more inviting in winter? I honestly felt happy picking out that box. It also shows a walking path between buildings – that is car-free – no traffic congestion here, in fact, no cars to speak of.
No wonder I went for the tissues, even though I hadn’t initially planned on buying any. Who wouldn’t want to be in a place like that? It shows a charming space where people implicitly feel safe; and what more do people really want in a home or community?
I soon learned that Kleenex, from multinational Kimberly-Clark, based in Irving, Texas, (valuation $44 billion), isn’t the only brand using charming and historic architecture to get us to shop. Check out the plastic bag and box below.
This new item (both the box and plastic bags inside) from IKEA, founded in Sweden, known as the world’s largest furniture retailer (valuation $21 billion), feature Stockholm’s famous 19th-century-and-earlier architecture, where tourists gravitate today.
And when you use these bags, put sandwiches in them, say – it does feel special! No wonder, they use the same timeless patterns that make us feel most at home in a place, and secure in a space, no matter where we’re from.
It’s fascinating to see how billion-dollar retailers seriously consider client feelings in the built environment – including ones not widely acknowledged, like the power of car-free streets and old architecture to make people feel safe and happy – to drive sales of things that have nothing to do with buildings at all.
Retailers know the strength of our attachments to place, and how these feelings are powerful enough to spill over to anything – including a box of tissues or plastic bags.
It is time for that knowledge of our hidden human behaviors to be better understood by developers, designers and planners today, to make our future environments healthier and happier. (It’s why we created this blog!)
Let’s use the appealing designs, sketched on tissue boxes, in the real world to create a public realm we can care about. Feelings, after all, do matter. Future generations will thank us.
Interested in building a better world, improving the outlook for people and the planet in 2022? Keen to understand the critical link between buildings and our biology? Then check out these books, written and edited by members and colleagues of The Human Architecture and Planning Institute Inc (theHapi.org), our affiliated non-profit.
Links to publications below; for Routledge Books use Discount Code FLR40 for 20% off at check out:
Keely Menezes, Pamela de Oliveria-Smith & A. Vernon Woodworth – Programming for Health and Wellbeing in Architecture(Routledge)
Ann Sussman & Justin Hollander – Cognitive Architecture, Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, 2nd Edition(Routledge)
Justin Hollander & Ann Sussman – Urban Experience and Design, Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm(Routledge)
Don Ruggles – Beauty, Neuroscience, and Architecture: Timeless Patterns and Their Impact on Our Well-Being(AbeBooks)
For videos, including of eye-tracking architecture and the recently recorded Book Launch for Programing for Health and Wellbeing in Architecture, check out theHapi.org YouTube channel.
In 20 chapters, this book makes the case for a new vision for architectural programming and practice, one where evidence-based design, systems thinking and a deeper understanding of our innate biology is brought to the fore. The goal is to highlight how human and environmental health are connected and frame a new paradigm that creates built environments which actively promote our health mentally, physically and socially – rather than the reverse.
Vernon Woodworth, co-editor, led this multidisciplinary discussion, with many of the book chapters’ authors, four of whom are instructors at the Boston Architectural College (BAC) and four of whom are on the Board of theHapi.org. All proceeds from book sales go to the BAC.
Ann Sussman will talk about about her new book Cognitive Architecture, 2nd edition, (2021) co-authored with Justin B Hollander, which reveals the technologies, including eye tracking, that show how subliminal human behaviors direct our experience of the built environment more than most realize. The book explains how new understandings in psychology reframe the history of modern architecture, as well, and its connection to veteran trauma post-WWI.
The talk, over Zoom, is open to all, sponsored by the Concord-Carlisle school district’s Adult & Community Education.
How do buildings make people feel? How do they influence behavior? This talk at the ICAA (Institute for Classical Architecture & Art) in NYC reviewed new findings in neuroscience and psychology and new technologies that can help us better understand architecture’s impact on people. It discussed 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 viewed 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. In this study, put together by design student Becky Chen, at the Boston Architectural College (BAC), note again how 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. 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 and in the new book, Cognitive Architecture, 2nd edition.
Conclusion: to design successfully for people it helps to understand how we function, and respect the fact human evolution made the first phase of our visual perception subliminal, and remember, as that famous Apple guy (Steve Jobs), once put it:
“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: