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:
The book reviews new findings in psychology and neuroscience to help architects and planners better understand their clients as the sophisticated mammals they are, arriving in the world with built-in responses to the environment. Discussing key biometric tools to help designers ‘see’ subliminal human behaviors and suggesting new ways to analyze designs before they are built, this new edition brings readers up-to-date on scientific tools relevant for assessing architecture and the human experience of place. The book includes 40 color images of eye-tracked architecture and delves further into psychology, revealing the role trauma, specifically PTSD, post-WWI, played in the development of the paradigm for 20th-century Modern Architecture.
The 2nd edition includes images which reveal how we take in a scene initially, showing how we are hard-wired to focus on detail and ignore blankness. It further discusses how these subliminal attachments contribute to feelings of connection or disconnection (anomie) in the built environment, implicitly supporting or degrading the public realm. Eye tracking creates heat maps which glow brightest where people look most, as in image below of a NYC library, showing people and areas of contrast grab us, but not the glassy façade despite its reflections.
A key take-away? Biometric studies can tell us a lot about how we look at buildings but even more about ourselves; we are a truly social species, designed for taking each other in. Eye tracking the cover of the 1st edition really brought that home; note where people looked most—the faces, the pre-eminent objects we need to see for survival!
For Routledge Book discount use code: FLR40 at link below:
“Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail.” – Leonardo da Vinci
Details really matter in architecture, and today we have the high-tech tools to show why and how to make the case quickly. For instance, below are two views of the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At right, an original Georgian building, dating from 1927, featuring symmetrical door and window details, and at left, its new addition, a modernist structure by famed Italian architect Renzo Piano, added in 2014.
Running both images through biometric software, in this instance 3M VAS (Visual Attention Software), which tracks how eyes take in a scene at first glance, we see how the older building instantly draws people in, while the newer one can’t. The images below forecast the visual sequence the eyes will follow; at right we see the focal points immediately falling around the front door of the old museum, which is where you want them to be at a public facility, while focus goes to the far edge and along the street of the newer one, effectively telling people to ignore both the door and building itself.
Biometric software makes equally revealing heat maps which glow brightest, and reddest, where people look most, fading to blue and then completely black in areas ignored. Note how the Georgian building and stair (below right) are bathed in blue and yellowish hue, keeping viewer attention away from street or sky. The opposite happens with the newer one (below left); it directs viewer attention to its edges, a street sign, the sky and away from the stair and entry, making it instantly less welcoming for a viewer or visitor.
Another useful biometric, Regions of Interest diagrams (ROIs), also called Hot Spots, forecast, as a percentage, where the brain makes people look, creating circles around areas that instantly draw the eye. Again note how 59-to-65 percent of views fall directly on the old museum (below right), and its entry, whereas 56-to-85 percent of views fall around the edges, sky and street artifacts, in the newer one (below left). This matters, revealing why it is harder for people to situate themselves in front of the new space.
Remember, even in our high-tech time, people are still animals, hard-wired for attachment, both to each other and the things we make. Successful design acknowledges our origins, and how evolution, and that struggle for survival that made us, preset our subliminal responses to surroundings including where we look first without even realizing it.
Details really matter in architecture because they draw us to a place, reflect how we attach, giving us what we need to see to secure ourselves in a space, and make us feel at home in a place. Details represent external manifestations of hidden internal brain requirements for survival in our dynamic eco-system; in sum: far from arbitrary or extraneous, details are requisite!
Given two interiors, how do people experience them and which do they prefer—the wallpapered room at left or the one with a living plant wall at right?
That’s the question designer Amanda Grinley looked to explore. Starting with a simple, stripped-down room, she wondered how adding biophilic elements, such as plants and representations of them, would change human behavior and how people felt about a space.
“This image (above) shows an interior stripped of design characteristics and serves as the control for understanding interiors that provide a better and healthier experience,” Grinley said. She ran it through biometric software, 3M VAS (Visual Attention Software) to understand how how people initially—at-first-glance—took in the scene.
VAS predicts initial responses, creating Visual Sequence diagrams that track the order people take things in, and Region of Interest (ROI) diagrams that predict, as a percentage, the area that draws the most attention; we see here 98% of views are predicted to fall on the couch and table with the rest of the room effectively ignored. And what happens with a redesign that adds a green wall and live biophilic elements?
VAS shows “the eye sequence dramatically changes to the green wall and wooden beam structure,” Grinley says; note how attention shifts from furniture to now include the wall and ceiling of the living space. Creating a room with elements that mimic nature also produces a shift – though not quite as dramatic:
Note how focus still falls on table and couch as in original image. The VAS program “allows you to glimpse into a psychological understanding of the human mind,” Grinley adds. It “picks up on where our eyes travel and how long we decide to focus on a given area of interest. With this understanding, designers have the opportunity to dramatically change where attention goes and promote a positive experience.”
And while VAS does not relay information about human emotional experience or how a place makes people feel, turning to social media tools like Instagram can do that, enriching the designer’s toolkit. Instagram, for instance, includes a polling feature allowing viewers to select their preferred image, as shown in the set-up below:
“A little over 100 people cast their vote on which interior they preferred,” Grinley said, in this poll which compared the two spaces over a 24-hour period. “The results came back with a majority wanting an interior with direct biophilic design.”
Why the preference? It connects to evolution. “Evolutionary theory explains humans evolving over a long period in natural environments so we became adept at taking in/ and preferring nature.” We don’t tend to look at blank things, and when it comes to designs that mimic nature, ones that replicate its fractal qualities, of repeatable, scalable patterns, and aren’t too dense or sparse, will be preferred.
“Thankfully, both methods can be used to promote a healthy environment,” she said, actual nature and designs that mimic natural patterns. And why is using biometrics with social media helpful? “This combination can become a powerful tool in understanding and influencing human behavior for better experiences in our built environment.”
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Our thanks to Amanda Grinley, BAC Master of Architecture student, for sharing this creative research, Spring 2021. All images courtesy Amanda Grinley.