Architects know best, as they often claim. With conviction, they’re sure certain details will make a space more hospitable, more beautiful, more preferable, and more enjoyable. There’s rarely any empirical evidence to back up those assertions. But an emerging field of research is now uncovering and quantifying our psychological response to buildings: cognitive architecture. The hope is that by better understanding through science what exactly it is people like or dislike about our built environment, designers can truly improve it.
Architect Ann Sussman and designer Janice M. Ward are two leading researchers studying how our brains see buildings. Their interest arose from their own observations and curiosity about how architects could create places that encouraged walkability and lingerability. “Both Janice and I were curious about why we felt immediately at home in two European capitols–Copenhagen and Paris–even though we didn’t live or grow up there,” Sussman tells Co.Design in an email. “How could we feel so at home in places we didn’t know? Without understanding human unconscious predispositions, we can’t understand or explain human behavior in the built environment.”
Recently the duo published the findings from four pilot studies, which use biometrics–eye tracking, specifically–to better understand human responses to architecture by uncovering how people literally see buildings. The results, published in Common Edge, a nonprofit publication that focuses on design in the service of people, are a fascinating glimpse into how our brains truly perceive architecture.
Eye tracking hardware and software–which has been used in many other industries like advertising, automotive design, and healthcare–hasn’t been applied to architecture. Sussman and Ward’s process involves hitching an eye-tracking camera to a computer, displaying photographs on the screen, and recording how people look at the images. Software from iMotions tracks the very rapid eye movements people make as they look at an image. Meanwhile, facial expression analysis software decodes the emotions people feel when they see the images. The fractions of seconds that people linger on certain details, and the expressions they make, offer researchers new insight into what makes people linger in real life.
“It’s very important to us that architects are aware of the tools that are already defining our world,” Sussman says. “Car designers, computer designers, advertisers, business school students are adept at using biometrics to craft multiple products, ads, and videos. Architects needs to understand why this is happening and [the technology’s] power. We believe using biometrics will improve our understanding of how architecture works and promote better building. We also want to encourage evidence-based design. Biometrics lets us forecast the human response; we should take advantage of that.”
Sussman and Ward have completed four biometric pilot studies since they began the research in 2015, and they’ve reached three “unexpected findings,” as they write. First, people ignore blank facades. Instead, time and again, they found that buildings with punched windows and areas of high contrast drew attention. Second, people look for people in images.
Third, fixations drive exploration–meaning that our subconscious influences our attention, which then impacts our conscious behavior. For instance, choosing whether they’d stand in front of a blank facade and one with a mural, people always chose the mural. It “provides fixation points to focus on; these give us a type of attachment we like and seem to need to feel at our best,” the duo writes in Common Edge. “Without these connections people apparently don’t know where to go–they get anxious–and so won’t select the blanker site.”
With these insights, architects could potentially reverse-engineer their designs to elicit specific behavior, like people socializing in a square, walking more, or being happier about their environment. Perhaps more importantly, biometric studies could help them convince their clients why specific details are so essential to have in a design. “At the moment, biometrics are predominantly used to get people to purchase things,” Sussman tells Co.Design. “We’d like to use them to improve public welfare, health, and well-being. We want to promote better place-making in the world and ease of walkability.”
Sussman and Ward are setting up a nonprofit organization called Genetics of Design to better understand the intersection of behavioral science, architecture, and biometrics, and they hope their research will lead to better design for more people.
Can a science-backed design formula unlock better cities for all? Perhaps, through research like this, it might.