The prevailing values ingrained in the minds of many designers and architects are originality and creativity. This stress on creativity results in many architectural decisions being made based on either experience, reference, or intuition, rather than evidence, which could shed light on human responses to design products. But as this month’s interview guest Colin Ellard says:
If you can show the possibility that bad design might do psychological harm, then design becomes a matter of public health. Then arguments about creativity only go so far’
The cult of creativity
Creativity is certainly important, but it shouldn’t go against human needs. Buildings and spaces have a big impact on the quality of human life. They can strengthen or weaken the sense of belonging, maintain or violate our boundaries, promote or reduce mobility, or even influence mental health.
In many cases, designers fueled by creative ambition don’t take into account the human perspective. And sometimes even when the designers refer to the issues of ergonomics or efficacy, their own perspective often still dominates. As a result, stereotypes about human physical and cognitive abilities, but also inequalities and social hierarchies, have been built into many designs.
The risk is that if we rely on a ‘designer only perspective’, we disconnect from our users. Bryan Lawson in: ‘How Designers Think? The Design Process Demystified’ writes:
The primary purpose of a greenhouse is clearly to trap heat from the sun. So we can begin [its design] by measuring or calculating the thermal efficiency of a whole range of possible greenhouses. Unfortunately, we are still some way from describing how satisfactory our greenhouse will appear to individual gardeners. They may well also want to know how much it will cost to buy, how long it will last, or how easy it will be to erect and maintain, and probably, what it will look like in the garden. The greenhouse then must satisfy criteria of solar gain, cost, durability, ease of assembly, appearance, and perhaps many others.
A designer who is not a gardener will not understand the nuances that exist with the job, and this reinforces the need for communication between the user and designer of a space.
Whether you’re talking about greenhouses, smart cities, products, or systems that underpin our lives, they are the sum of designers’ decisions. And inequality and exclusion are often the unintentional consequences of those choices.
The problem will not disappear on its own. To address this, creators should consider various human physical and cognitive abilities. Neuroscience can lead us away from thinking about objects towards human experience, as stated by Harry F. Mallgrave. Science cannot design but it can certainly inform design decisions.
Research evidence can help designers to have a better understanding of how people think, feel, and interact with buildings. Scientific insights on human perception, cognition, social interactions, and how people interact with environments can then augment the designer’s empathy.
Technology reveals our hidden reactions
For example, in modernist architecture, the use of ornaments was not really in favour. The 19th century has produced some highly decorated buildings. As a result, the early modernists felt the urge to liberate their works from these ornaments. In an essay called Ornament and Crime, the Austrian modernist Adolf Loos argued that decorating a building with anything pretty was a sin against the profession of an architect.
However, eye-tracking studies reveal that the facades and street spaces which do have this richness of ornamental and tactile detail relate better to humans than bland surfaces.
Another avenue preventing the creation of unfriendly design is co-design. Also called inclusive planning, it involves the future inhabitants in all stages of the planning process. Inclusive design is a data-driven and participatory process. It is focused on involving people who are diverse in many respects and it promotes participation, engagement, a sense of influence, and belonging within cities and organizations.
Why is co-design important? Empathizing with user communities to understand their needs and challenges is traditionally the first step in design thinking and human-centred product development. However, it can be difficult for designers to empathize without relating to their own life experiences, which biases their thinking.
For example, it is truly difficult to experience the environment the way it is experienced by an elderly person. Inclusion of elderly people’s perspective into the process can ensure design relates to their needs. In some cases, even design tools that can reinforce designers’ empathy, can be of help.
MIT AgeLab is a research programme that believes that by experiencing a specific problem, a designer gains a better understanding of it – and ultimately creates better design. Their AGNES bodysuit (an acronym for ‘Age Gain Now Empathy System’) is not a perfect representation of what it feels like to be in their late-70s or early 80s. But it’s an empathy experience tool that helps researchers and designers to see the world differently.
We all know design solutions linked with cultural stereotypes failing to account for the needs of children, women, the elderly, or disabled people. A recently published article in The Guardian reminds us again that consciously or otherwise, designers work following their own set of ideas about how things work.
How designer-centric process fails
When Le Corbusier developed his proportional system Le Modulor in the 1940s, he had in mind a handsome British policeman. The consequences of the modernist worldview were far reaching and almost omnipresent – Le Corbusier’s system would shape the entire postwar world and become an industry standard. It has influenced dimensions from the height of a door handle through the scale of a staircase, to the size of city blocks. And these reflected the needs of the car that the imagined British policeman would drive to work.
Ann Sussman, the author of ‘Cognitive Architecture’ and ‘Urban Experience and Design’, writes that using eye-tracking to research people with autism can help us understand why Le Corbusier might have remained blind to others’ views, as he wouldn’t process visual stimuli in the same way as most others.
This could potentially help us understand why his architecture turned out the way it did. Le Corbusier’s designs were possibly a response to his atypical brain. He might have been striving to limit stimulation, wrestling to calm a brain abuzz.
It would be very difficult to prove this hypothesis today since Le Corbusier passed away a long time ago. However, it’s still an interesting thought experiment, to imagine how a designer-centric process not involving empathy and scientific evidence, might influence the outcomes negatively.
Furthermore, Ann Sussman writes: ‘Understanding that our brain is an artefact of 3.6 billion years of evolution frames this new direction, as is [sic] accepting the truth that unconscious brain activity directs our conscious behavior’.
The fact that many of our reactions are beyond our conscious control and awareness, shows why it’s useful to incorporate research technology, biometrics and scientific data into the architectural process.
An exploration done by Google and John Hopkins Arts and Mind Lab during Milan Design Week in 2019, looking at people’s physiological reactions towards three rooms designed with neuroaesthetic principles in mind, confirmed that our declarative experience can vary from actual bodily responses. As concluded by Susan Magsamen from Arts and Mind Lab at John Hopkins, technology can help people to become more aware of how their body reacts.
Designing for neurodiversity
Another lesson learnt from Ann Sussman’s article is that many designs are likely created by neurodiverse architects. At the same time, design for neurodiversity requires us to acknowledge these differences (as well as our unique traits) and empathize with users of a differently working mind.
Scientific insights on how the brains of neurodiverse people might work, expose us towards a plurality of perspectives. Diversity in nature is abundant and has been evolutionarily rewarded. People have always been diverse (and neurodiverse) but only now we start to embrace this fact and open up towards a whole new world of design solutions.
Science and tech show us where our limits are. Designers’ empathy should be either augmented by insights provided during the pre-design stage and even upgraded to compassion – we have to listen and treat people with dignity, almost as if they were experts on their own experience.
Society benefits from architecture being more accessible, flexible and diverse. It is a way to foster social capital. Inclusive architecture and design should then become a standard of designers’ professional success. If this happens, we might see the next Pritzker Prizes in the hands of architects who can truly address and empathize with human needs – both physical, social and psychological.
Subscribe to Venetian Letter
You will receive our regular newsletter with blog posts, interviews, books and events on human-focused architecture and urban design.
- Lawson, B. (2006). How designers think: the design process demystified. Architectural Press. p.64.
- Chang, Felix. (October, 2020). To Build More-Inclusive Technology, Change Your Design Process. Harvard Business Review
- Spanjar, Gideon & Suurenbroek, Frank (2020). Using Neuro-Architecture to Reinforce Participatory Planning and Design. Conscious Cities Anthology 2020: To Shape and Be Shaped
- Empathy suit helps us understand ageing https://atlasofthefuture.org/project/agnes-mit/
- Wainwright, Oliver. (2021). Why are our cities built for 6ft-tall men? The female architects who fought back. The Guardian