Our 2018 Art+Science Photo Contest

We’re thrilled to announce our grant from the Acton-Boxborough Cultural Council (ABCC) for a unique art + science study of two Massachusetts towns.


This study uses photography, biometric tools and new findings in neuroscience to show how our unconscious behaviors govern our experience of the built environment.

To engage the public, we’re starting with an open call for photos of buildings + houses + streetscapes (no people) that people love – or don’t like so much – in Acton and Boxborough.

2018ABCCphotocontestflyer.pngMany thanks to our collaborators for this first-of-its-kind STEAM (science | technology | engineering | arts | math) study;  AB PIP STEM (actonpip.org), the Discover Museum of Acton, Green Acton and the ABCC, a branch of the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC). Without their support and appetite for creativity, it wouldn’t have happened!

Contest FAQs

  1. Photos of buildings, houses and streetscapes must be in towns of Acton and/or Boxborough, MA.
  2. You don’t have to be a resident to participate.
  3. All ages welcome.
  4. Prizes will be awarded.
  5. No people in pictures; they skew results.
  6. Submit up to 5 photos of AB places you like +/or dislike.
  7. Make sure your last name is part of the filename for each pic, and file extensions are .jpg or .png or .gif.
  8. Click the Upload Pix Here button to fill out the form and submit your photos.  (You’ll have to be logged into your Google account.)
  9. Other ?s: email artscapeshow@gmail.com

Upload Pix Here!


Posted in Architecture, City Planning, Design, Eye Tracking, People-centric Design, STEM, Walkability | Tagged | Leave a comment

If You Want To See How People ‘See’ Boston City Hall – Eye Track it!

Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy and Boston’s City Hall Plaza are often cited as the best and worst of what architecture can be. The Italian piazza with its crenelated city hall and tightly-aligned buildings has invited public gathering and acclaim for centuries, frequently making best-in-design lists. Boston’s 50-year old plaza, on the other hand, an urban renewal project from the 1960s, has never lived up to its promise. Instead, you’ll find it listed as one of “the most disappointing places in America,” and even calls for its demolition.


That’s been studied a good deal. Researchers have carefully analyzed Boston City Hall Plaza for years, including in graduate school theses and this recent Tufts University planning class. In 2015, Boston’s new Mayor, Marty Walsh, launched yet another initiative to find ways to improve the look, feel and function of his workplace.

Siena + Boston
So, why does Boston’s Government Center fail from a public perspective? Frequently mentioned strengths of the Italian vs American counterpart include:

Piazza del Campo, Siena, c. 1349

  • Pedestrian friendly access to and within the plaza;
  • Buildings and plaza scaled for people with safe, obvious places for gathering;
  • Destinations for all, such as shops, eateries;
  • Protected from vehicular traffic; cars banned from central city;
  • Open, yet has awnings for shelter; distinct edges, clear exits.

Boston City Hall Plaza, MA, c. 1968

  • Not-very-pedestrian-friendly access to site and uncertain circulation path within;
  • Buildings and plaza not human scaled; no place really feels safe; no gathering spots beckon;
  • Few destinations such as shops, eateries;
  • Unprotected from vehicles to east, west and south;
  • Open design offering little shelter or well-defined edge-conditions.

We buy it, yet our research suggests there’s something more. Indeed, to make sense of Boston City Hall Plaza today, we think you first need to ask really basic questions – like these:

  • How do people actually take in the place?
  • Where do they look when they’re there?
  • What draws their eye initially, then second and third?

Using biometric tools, such as eye tracking, which measures our conscious and ‘unconscious’ eye movements as we take in visual stimuli, and is frequently used in advertising and web design, we can now do so, efficiently and inexpensively.  So what happens when you eye track Boston City Hall?

Much more than we expected! In fact, it took us a while to understand our findings; but after running four pilot-studies, eye tracking more than 150 buildings both within and outside Boston over two years, we can now report with some authority:

Boston City Hall and Plaza fail to attract the public because the building and surrounding spaces don’t provide the fixation points in the first 3-5 seconds the brain needs to see (that’s during pre-attentive processing, before the conscious brain can get into the act), to most easily regulate, feel at its best, and effortlessly move us forward.

It was astonishing for us to ‘see’ how difficult it was for people to actually look at, or ‘fixate’ on any part of the building, even with its picture on a monitor placed directly in front of them.

Check out two of the images from our study below. Note where people look: at City Hall’s edge conditions, at other people, at vehicles in the vicinity. Only at six (6) seconds in did viewers, not all, but 75% of them, look directly at the building – apparently the high contrast large black windows with the engraved letters above catching their eye. After that, almost half the participants (15 of 33) quickly looked away to focus on outermost edge conditions again.

Of couse, a next question would be, what kind of architecture draws the eye in pre-attentive processing? That’s critical to understand if we want to design people-friendly places!  Stay tuned, we’ll pick up on that in future posts.

Eye Tracking Boston City Hall Plaza

Eye Tracking Boston City Hall + Plaza

This is a shadow study showing eye-tracking results from our first pilot-study of Boston City Hall; it glows brightest where people look most and fades to dark grey in areas ignored. Note how much of the building and plaza are in the dark. The green-circled numbers show seven areas of interest (AOIs) that drew the attention of 33 participants sequentially. Yellow boxes highlight more eye-tracking metrics.

The Metrics
Fixations is where eyes stop to focus. The length of time it takes people to focus is Time to First Fixation (TTFF). Time Spent is what it sounds like – length of time spent focused. Ratio compares the number of people who gazed at an area over total number of participants. Revisitors refers to the number of people who looked away and looked back at an area; Revisits are the number of times they went back to a same spot.

Fixation Sequence (1 – 7) Boston City Hall (front elevation)
1. By 1.3 seconds, 32 of 33 participants look at the area with a person and through an opening in City Hall to light beyond, (we’re hardwired to look for people and areas of high contrast without conscious effort).
2. Next, 31 of 33, focus on a second group of people and high-contrast area; gaze again appears directed through the building rather than at it.
3. 25 of 33 then apparently move to study the text and contrast provided by the elevation’s tallest punched windows; this happens at 6 seconds, when more of  ‘conscious’ brain may come online.
4. 15 of 33 then notice a side wall against the skyline; (as mammals, we innately seek out well-defined edges, it’s a survival strategy).
5. At 12.6s, 13 of 33 shift focus to a person and trucks in the courtyard.
6. 9 of 33 focus on high contrasting section of brick wall, slightly above trucks.
7. At 13.6 seconds, 6 out of 33 finally looked at an almost centrally-placed location on the City Hall building, high-contrast windows above 2nd fixation point; our bifocal vision favors looking at things centered in front of us, so this move seems to take a while.

Fixation Sequence (1 – 4) Boston City Hall (front elevation closer detail)

Boston City Hall

Eye Tracking Boston City Hall + Plaza

1. By 1 second, 33 participants fixated (335 times) on the high-contrast central area of image; again gaze appears drawn to the light, blue sky and brick building beyond plaza.
2. By 8 seconds in, 25 of 33 viewers, or 75%, are looking away from City Hall to iconic Custom House Tower.
3. 14 of 33 went for the truck, and its contrasty print letters;
4. At 13.3 second, 6 of 33, or 18% of viewers, go back to look at the building, likely drawn to contrasting color, sharp edges and letters above entry.

Eye-tracked images©geneticsofdesign.com

Many thanks to Boston’s Institute for Human-Centered Design for providing lab set-up and staff for this study. and to Justin B. Hollander of Tufts University for his initiative, collaboration and support for studies outside Boston.

We also thank ArchNewsNow.com for linking to post, Feb. 20th, 2018.

Posted in Architecture, City Planning, Eye Tracking, People-centric Design, Walkability | Leave a comment

Why Putting Pets on a Package Grabs Attention – No Matter What’s Inside

Around the end-of-year gift-giving season, it’s fun to check out the packages that grab our attention. Like this one:

Screen Shot 2017-12-18 at 11.44.26 PM

Completely irresistible. How can you not look at those kitties and love them? Won’t you take them home? The feelings are so strong that it barely registers that what you’re also buying is the contents inside the box: in this case, small butter biscuits. Nothing to do with pets. But your brain, hardwired for attachment, feeling safe and happiest in connection, instantly overrides all logic.

The reasoning parts of your mind simply can’t compete with the attachment parts. Why? They’re up against 3.8 billion years of evolution. When mammals showed up  200 million years ago their young were uniquely helpless—the world had never seen such needy little ones. The tendency accelerated over the millennia, particularly for primates, and today humans bear the most helpless babies ever. If our infant offspring had the abilities of a newborn chimpanzee, our nearest living relative, they’d have to gestate 18-21 months!

So we stick readily—even to embossed kittens on a metal box – because that’s the solution Mother Nature came up with to overcome acute post-natal helplessness: acute attachment behavior. Nothing else could secure the species’ survival. And the quirky side-effect? We’ll attach to anything that suggests a little face—even on an inanimate box or bottle or building facade.

Screen Shot 2017-12-20 at 9.53.02 PM

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 9.23.11 AMIt can’t be any other way since Nature’s preset what we most need to look at before birth. Marketers know this, of course, and use it effectively.  Architects don’t – and should take note!


cottage photo: © S Hines

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Eye-Tracking Architecture: Going viral…

Eye Tracking Examples
We were pleased to see our research reported in Common\Edge earlier this month getting broad coverage elsewhere. Let us know if you’d like to republish too.

1. Fast Company:

2. Architectural Digest:

3. ArchDaily: (in English + Portuguese)

4. ArchNewsNow:

5. Architecture Here and There:

6. More Sports, More Architecture: (in German + English)

7. Curbed:

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‘Game-Changing Eye-Tracking Studies Reveal How We Actually See Architecture’ from Common\Edge


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 Janice M. Ward from geneticsofdesign.com.

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Wellness Walls: A Look at Leaves and their Long-lasting Allure

GreenBuild1Last week’s GreenBuild/ ABX2017Expo in Boston boasted a mind-boggling 550+ exhibitors and 75+ product categories focused on sustainable building—from insulation to solar panels. As the escalator descended to the 12-acre exhibit space, I felt that Robin Williams’ Moscow on Hudson moment—completely overwhelmed by too many choices. So I dodged the crowds, blew past the booths, ditched the demonstrations. and tipped-toed past the tiny houses in favor of plants. Walls and walls of green plants. They drew me in.

GreenBuild2In an Expo Hall overflowing with people and products, I sought out the green at GreenBuild. E.O. Wilson, the famed biologist, might understand. In 1984, he proposed the biophilia hypothesis that suggests humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature. More recent research links the health and wellness benefits of green plants to increased productivity in the workplace, a happier workforce and increased memory retention.

I hung out in GreenBuild3the greenery for a while and visited a handful of vendors who touted the health benefits of vertical green walls. First stop: Nedlaw Living Walls where their biofiltration technology uses a hydroponic system to remove pollutants from a building’s air and return cleansed air while bringing nature into the workplace to improve employee well-being.

GreenBuild4Next came Naava whose “smart green walls” offer air purification technology in a soilless system that is monitored by sensors and artificial intelligence. The company’s goal is to create “healthier, happier, and more inspiring workplaces” with a fully-automated combination product—air purifier, humidifier and living plant wall—all in one.”

Ambius promotes standalone vertical or wall-mounted, hydroponic gardens called SageWallsä and mosaic-like systems called Sage Biotilesä that can support perennials, ground covers, annuals, vines and tropical foliage in any design configuration. Their walls improve air quality and beautify the workplace while boosting employee morale.

GreenBuild5The focus of CityScapes is to enhance the built “environment through biophilic design and the power of plants.” They claim the benefits of living walls include air filtration and pollution removal as well as stress reduction. Loved the fact their conference swag included an air plant in a tiny, round copper wire cage.

Suite Plants had my number: an easy-to-maintain modular green wall that can be mounted as easily as a photo on a wall, configured to any size and required no electricity or water pumps. The possibility of an easy-to-install small green wall in my home office appealed to my DIY nature.

If green walls can remove conference stress, imagine what they could do for an office, school, hospital or the building you’re in right now?

Turns out our man-made architecture works best when non-built features abound. At the end of the day, no matter the architect, it’s Mother Nature’s work we crave–as the experience of a 12-acre (4.8 hectare) exhibit space made clear.

Imagine the impact in a smaller venue–like my home office!


(All photos by Janice M. Ward at GreenBuild 2017 in Boston.)

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What Makes a Place Walkable? Turns out not just sidewalks.

Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 4.14.40 PM

What makes a place walkable? Turns out it’s not just sidewalks. ‘Fixation points’ that stimulate the eye to look in a direction or at a specific place, matter too.

With eye-tracking tools, you can start to deconstruct the hidden process behind walkability, looking at how how we ‘fixate’ without conscious control, and then move our attention and/or our bodies towards the place in question. We can track the visual sequence our brain gets our eyes to follow as they look at something, as shown in the streetscape above, (at right).

This is Chance Street, a new neighborhood in Devens, central Massachusetts, designed to promote community and rehabilitate a former military base. Working with a team at Tufts, we eye tracked the new development using an off-the-shelf emulation product, 3M’s Visual Attention Software (VAS). The central image which it created shows a ‘heat map’ that glows brightest where people likely look most within the first 5 seconds taking in this scene (during ‘pre-attentive’ processing). The image at right above, shows the path eyes  likely follow within that timeframe. The fixation sequence shown here, 1 through 4, goes straight down the street, suggesting both the building layout and architecture promote walkability as intended – even before our conscious brain can get into the act.

Screen Shot 2017-09-17 at 12.03.05 AMEye-tracking data can also be compiled into ‘regions’, where outlined areas in red (in image at left) indicate a high probability of garnering viewing attention (74% – 98%), in yellow, a medium probability (58% – 63%). Areas with no outline will most likely be ignored.

So, here again, you can see that even if you’ve never been to Devens, you’ll have a pretty easy time navigating along Chance Street.

The biometric testing suggests that not all areas of the new development invite walkability to the same extent, however. For instance, the parking alley behind Chance Street, lined with free-standing garages, would prove much more daunting for the newcomer who would be less likely to even consider ambling along it. Why?

Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 11.20.59 AM The images above show how the brain directs the eyes to take in the central area of the scene but provides no clear path of fixation points down the roadway – so nowhere to go from the unconscious brain’s perspective; and because unconscious processing directs conscious behavior, this is not going to be a popular pedestrian byway – ever. But come to think of it, that may be exactly what the developer and residents want: a street out front with people and one behind – for privacy’s sake – without them.

Screen Shot 2017-09-17 at 6.08.30 PM

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Thanks to Prof Justin B Hollander, of Tufts, Hanna Carr, Tufts, ’20, for assistance with research and the Devens Enterprise Commission for supporting it.


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