The “Primal Pattern” for Architecture is in Us

What happens when you ask people to “draw a house as if they were five?”

Last year I gave 19 talks, in the U.S. and Berlin, and asked more than 500 people just that. The results are in – and they are revealing:


the Primal Pattern-Embellished


the Primal Pattern









In 74% of the cases, people drew – with no direction on anyone’s part – a bilateral symmetrical building with two windows and a centrally placed door (see image above left) or a more embellished version of the same (at right). We call the first, ‘the Primal Pattern’ and the second, ‘the Primal Pattern-Embellished.’


the Primal Pattern-Reduced

In 22% of the cases we got a streamlined version, missing a door, or window(s), (see above) or occasionally all blank, or the ‘the Primal Pattern-Reduced.’

In only 4% of the cases did we get more unique interpretations; a floor plan, a room interior, in one instance, a castle.

Remarkably, the drawings varied little even if people were born or grew up outside North America or the U. S.; in fact, 32% of participants came from other continents (South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia). Roof designs varied in some of these cases but not much else.











So, why do people make such similar drawings? They can’t help it. The primal pattern, a version of the face, is in our DNA; it’s what we’re meant to see. Remember, we don’t see ‘reality,’ we see what nature wants us to ‘see’ based on our unique 3.8 billion-year-evolutionary trip; the process has preset the most important imprint for our lives.

“We are fundamentally social creatures – our brains are wired to foster working and playing together,” writes Bessel van der Kolk, MD, in The Body Keeps the Score (2014). And that’s just what the House Experiment demonstrates; everyone draws a face-like object because it’s the prime vehicle for human interaction and social engagement.

And why does this matter?

To build successfully for people: encouraging healthy communities, creating walkable byways, and promoting sustainable resource use, we need to recognize who we are and what we’re built to see.  It can’t be any other way, actually.  Streetscapes with primal patterning in their architecture will always be easier for us to walk down and feel at home in than ones without. Tracking primal patterning may even prove useful for understanding urban impact, and moving forward, building successful developments in the future.

After all, in the 21st century, isn’t it time to make Mother Nature proud?

Author: Ann Sussman
Editor: Janice M. Ward

Data analysis: Andrea Saunders, MSEE

Talk venues: Greenbuild/Europe in Berlin, Germany; In U.S., Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT); Greenbuild/International, in Chicago; Boston Architectural College (BAC); Boston Society of Architects (BSA); Stantec in Boston, MA; EYP in Boston, MA; Jacobs in Boston, MA; U.S. Dept. of State, Overseas Building Operations, in Washington DC; Neuroscience for Society meet-up, MIT, in Cambridge, MA; Discovery Museum, Acton, MA; SNEAPA, planning conference in Hartford, CT; CNU planning conference in Savannah, GA; Yale School of Architecture in New Haven, CT; Fitchburg State University (FSU) in Fitchburg, MA.

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How Architecture Makes Us Feel – Matters!

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said,
people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou


Sharp edges on the new, shiny glass tower at 121 Seaport, Boston, say, “You don’t matter.”

Maya got that right: people never forget how you make them feel. The same could be said of the buildings we live and work in. Who would want to enter the new glass box at left?

A recent BBC article describes The Hidden Ways That Architecture Affects Us—how “buildings and cities can affect our mood and well-being, and that specialized cells in the hippocampal region of our brains are attuned to the geometry and arrangement of spaces we inhabit.”

These scientific studies reveal that people embrace green spaces, patterns, colors and curves, while we shun sharp edges, blank facades and vast, unsheltered spaces. Buildings speak to us – wordlessly saying:

“Come stay with us.”
“I’m here for you,” or
“You don’t matter at all.”

And people respond accordingly, approaching or avoiding a place—or entire sections of a city.

On a recent trip to the Seaport District in Boston, we paid particular attention to the sentiments in the air, comparing the old and new blocks by the ocean.


Visit my space,” the old brick building on Summer Street said.


“Stay away,” the Boston Convention Center told us.


“Bring the kids,” boomed the antique Milk Bottle.


“Enjoy my harbor view,” said the patio.

And we came away with one certain conviction: the old blocks beckon much more than the shiny, new ones do.

We saw that buildings and blocks can be unforgettable depending on how they made us feel. And come to think of it, it can’t be any other way, of course, for like with people—how they make us feel is what really matters.

Author: Janice M. Ward,
Editor: Ann Sussman

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Next Step for Architecture? Embracing the Biology of Human Perception

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How do we look at the world? Like the animal we are!  The images above shows how we look at a coffee cup differently when it has ‘eyes’ on it – even if fake!  Our brain, an artifact of 3.8 billion years of evolution would never let us do otherwise! It’s simply too dangerous from its perspective.  So when we see the eyes on the plush cup at a coffee bar we go straight for them unconsciously (in pre-attentive processing); and when they’re removed we’ll focus attention more on the sharp shapes (toothpicks) in front.*

Why does this matter? Well, turns out it’s huge if you care about building better places for people.

“Architects today face a unique opportunity to reshape the environment so it’s a better fit with our biological nature. They are in an unprecedented position to use evidence-based design and build what people want to, unconsciously, see and be in. With new biometric tools, they can more easily do postoccupancy evaluations, asking people where they feel at their best, ensuring that new projects are rooted in successful precedent—for real.”

Evolution is real and fascinating; to build healthy sustainable places for people, designers need to look into it. Read more at Architectural Digest site: Why Architectural Education Needs to Embrace Evidence-Based Design, Now .

* Images made with 3M’s VAS software.

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1st Ux+Design/2019 Conference: Call for Proposals

Call for PROPOSALS.10-31For Tufts link see:

For link: 11.06.2018


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‘How Do We See our World?’: a fun Flash-card Game, Debuting at Discovery Museum in Acton, MA, October 5th, Shows You!


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How Do We See our World?

What grabs our eye first, second + third?

Come find out at the Discovery Museum in Acton, MA on Friday, October 5, 2018, from 4:30 – 7 PM. Admission’s free. It’s fun for all ages.

Our thanks to the Acton-Boxborough Cultural Council (ABCC) for providing Genetics of Design with funding to create this program; our high-school interns, Christopher Duncan, Siraj Chokshi, and Anindita Lai for helping run it; and for the software making it all possible, bringing science to life.


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Winning Photos Show How We Truly ‘See’ Buildings

How does architecture catch the eye?

The 2018 Acton-Boxborough Photo Contest, an art-science project, run by Genetics of Design, with help from high school students and supported by a local Cultural Council (ABCC), came up with these intriguing answers.

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In 1stPlaceWoodlawn Chapel, Acton, by Sandra Hinds predicts the visual sequence people will likely take the first few seconds they see the building, at left; the original photo’s at right.

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Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 9.03.15 PMIn 2ndPlaceRed Barn in West Acton, by Christopher Duncan shows the ‘regions’ which draw in the eye, and likelihood of doing so as a percentage (areas outside delineations are ignored); the original image is at right.

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In 3rdPlace, Acton Memorial Library, by Sanjana Cheerla, above, shows a heat map glowing brightest where people will likely look most, fading to grey and black in areas they’ll ignore; the original is at right.

High school students took the photos and interns Anindita Lal and Siraj Chokshi, working with Genetics of Design, selected them from more than three dozen entries. Winning photos were chosen based on composition, originality and the quality of images they generated using software that predicts how people look at things during pre-attentive processing, that’s in the first 3-5 seconds before the conscious brain can get into the act.

3M’s Visual Attention Software (VAS), based on 30-years of eye-tracking research studying how human eyes move, created the heat maps, visual sequence and regions of interest diagrams shown here. Interns Anindita Lal, Siraj Chokshi, and Christopher Duncan ran the original photographs through the VAS to display these intriguing findings. They help us understand how the human brain is hardwired without conscious control to seek out areas of contrast, edges, faces and has an affinity for the color red.

The images and others like them will be on display at the Discovery Museum in Acton, MA this August. The intent is to make learning about science and biology fun; studies like these can also be useful in understanding way finding and walkability and implementing designs that improve it.

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Biometrics + ‘Evidence-based’ Design: the Next Step for Architecture

We’re sharing a new post from iMotions, a bio-metric aggregating company based in Boston and Copenhagen, on the emerging field of neuroarchitecture, and how high tech tools can help us better understand human responses to the built-environment and improve design.  (Full disclosure: we’ve successfully used iMotions in our studies.)

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Neuroarchitecture or cognitive architecture, is an emerging field that provides an empirical basis for the design choices made by architects. Rather than settling for purely theoretical debates about test prices in design, research is showing the way, and guiding the creation of actual evidence-based design.

Continue reading this post to find current trends in eye-tracking and how they inform our world today.

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