Keith Francis: You can’t live outside of the things you’re designing for

Keith Francis. Image: Archive of Keith Francis

Keith (he/him) is an Associate and Senior Director of Experience Outcomes for the global design agency Forge Media and Design. He holds a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from York University. He serves as a Fellow at McLaughlin College with peer-reviewed published works in Taylor and Francis Architectural Science Review. Keith is a member of the BrainXChange Design and Dementia Community of Practice, a board member of the Canadian Healthcare Infrastructure, a guest lecturer for the Ontario Association of Architects, the Neuroscience Applied to Architectural Design program in Venice, and other organizations. He’s also the founder of COUP, The Community of Unlikely Partnerships.

Natalia Olszewska: Keith, your journey through the world of design is special. You focus on the experiential aspects of design. What does that mean and how did you get there?

Keith Francis: I always thought there was a relationship between creativity and how it affected the human experience. It was often frustrating to work in a creative field where aesthetics, color palette, form, materiality, all of those things were leading the discussion. Especially when that happened at the expense of people who felt absent from the process.

The design palette was generally placed before the lived experience of people, whether they were neurotypical or neurodiverse or different cultures. I always felt that it should have been reversed.

Without fully understanding or including these lived experiences, applied design may not fully grasp the cognitive and affective relationships foundational to what and how we should design. I always felt that the starting point should be the perspectives and narratives of embodiment, phenomenology, and all the things that have now become central to my life.

Having said that, I think there’s definitely a renaissance of that kind of thinking going on lately. There’s a hyper-awareness now that we really need to think about human perspectives.

Stella’s Place, Forge Media and Design. Image: Archive of Keith Francis

And as someone said to me recently, it’s less about being human-centered and more about being human-directed. That is, yes, we design for people, and everything we do should be human-centered, but we also want to make sure that the people we’re designing for participate. And that they’re not passive witnesses to the things that we design. They’re active participants in the perspectives and the curation of the worlds that they would want to  live in, inhabit, and dwell.

I think intersections are what make the world a really unique place. It’s the fertile ground from which innovation springs, and the more diverse and unlikely those intersections are, the more interesting and unique the results are.

What is Phenomenology?

Natalia: Could you tell us more about one of your main areas of interest, phenomenology? What is it about?

Keith: It’s a great place to start a discussion because it’s a good source for me in terms of how I go about the world. Not just as a philosophy, but as an attitude. The classic definition of phenomenology, and there are different definitions, is that it’s a direct study and description of things as they are consciously experienced.

When I was first introduced to phenomenology, it wasn’t easy for me to understand. If we are to study how people experience things, how can we find depth of experience in a “swipe and skim” world where people often engage superficially, not necessarily in contact with their consciousness and feelings. We absorb things in a short and fleeting way. Experiences are superficially skimmed without any depth.

I started with philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty. My other seminal readings were on the topic of phenomenology of perception, the writings of Husserl and Heidegger. But it was when I began to combine phenomenology with architecture that my curiosity peaked.

I became very interested in the perspective of space, the construction of place and environments, and the reciprocal exchange of space and place with human behavior and experience.

It was often frustrating to work in a creative field where aesthetics, color palette, form, materiality, all of those things were leading the discussion.

Natalia: Fascinating. So can we talk more about this intersection of phenomenology and spaces? Is it about the depth of human experience in the context of spaces? Or is it about the profound impact of spaces on us, our consciousness, our awareness?

Keith: One of the greatest and warmest expressions I ever heard about architecture is that “architecture is practicing philosophy with the hands”. And I found that absolutely fascinating, because when I started to look at architecture as a profession, I was intimidated by the scientific side of it, and I wanted to embrace the humanities.

As Christian Norberg-Schulz says, phenomenology, in the context of the built environment, speaks of the genius loci, the spirit and sense of place. And it becomes the glue between the physicality of space and its experience. It looks at the profound nature of how the design of environments influences human experience in terms of behavior, embodiment, or even self-awareness.

I mentioned the quality of the time we live in right now, which is swipe and skim. And I often see the world and the way we experience architecture as very ephemeral. We’re ephemeral creatures moving through these environments.

We see it, we touch the materiality of it, but we never really absorb what it means to us. But at the same time, our bodies and our brains are very sensitive to how the places around us are designed.

Natalia: I remember when Christian Norberg-Schulz said, “To dwell is to belong to a place. What is dwelling as opposed to these temporary experiences of moving through space?

Keith: Dwelling has a lot to do with having a sense of place but also your sense of comfort. The only way to get a good sense of what placemaking is, is to understand “non-place”.

Lost in a car park. Image: Ruffa Jane Reyes

Imagine the disconnected experience of forgetting where you parked your car. You come back after three hours of shopping. Suddenly, you have a sense of disorientation, panic, disembodiment, and confusion as your memory fails.

You can’t remember where you parked your car as you stand alone within an unfamiliar space, the physical substance of the surroundings fails to provide reassurance or comfort – you are as Marc Augé describes as “everywhere and nowhere” a “non-place.” Understanding these feelings provides the context to curate a place with consideration and sensitivity to the felt experiences.

When you look at different writings, for example, Gaston Bachelard, Christopher Day, Steven Holl, and Juhani Pallasmaa, they bring to the forefront the silent language of our feelings.

The warmth and sensitivity of words like poetic, dreams, solitude, intimacy, sanctuary, healing, love, spirit and soul are co-joined with the sometimes clinical words and conceptions of architecture, like geometry, aesthetics, structure, and scale. 

This provides a new symbiotic language and envisioning of how we feel or desire to feel within spatial realms. In this regard I’ve always felt the mathematizing of space and place has been problematic for not only the body, but also the mind, because the insistence on linear arrangements is more mentally confining than liberating.

There’s a deep connection between a place and your memory of it, especially when it comes to your own home. So much of what we see is what we feel. So what I thought about Christian Norberg-Schulz’s perspective on dwelling is that it was less about seeing and more about feeling.

How can phenomenology benefit architecture?

Natalia: There’s no doubt that spaces affect us on profound levels. You talked about feeling, consciousness, memory, embodiment, spirituality. This also means that your level of connection to a place determines how rich your experience is in that place.

Keith: I can give you a perspective of what I’ve learned through phenomenology. In my own profession at Forge Media and Design, architects are our partners and we often assist them with things like signage and wayfinding.

We’re seeing more and more now that clients want positive evidence (root cause and effect) of human behavior and an understanding of the impact of what we design, beyond aesthetics. They’re asking behavioral and psychological questions rooted in positive impact, first-person perspectives and reciprocity, particularly in promoting health and well-being.

They’re going to give us credit for our understanding of aesthetics, materiality, and the composition of space, but they also want to take into account the fact that there are people who are going to live and move through these spaces and they’re going to be affected by them.

It could be a residential building, it could be an airport, it could be a commercial space. How can we understand these emotions and experiences more deeply? Why do people respond to these colors? Why should this environment be built this way?

We’re seeing more and more now that clients want positive evidence (root cause and effect) of human behavior and an understanding of the impact of what we design, beyond aesthetics.

How do we design the environment for health and wellness? How do we account for the experiences of neurodiverse people or patients in hospitals? How do we provide a participatory forum for the inclusion of lived experiences?

As much as phenomenology awakened my sensitivities to others and the world around me, it also exposed how ill-equipped I was to understand perspectives such as narrative, embodiment, personhood, consciousness, and stigma.

I was practicing a form of design intending to help people, but I wasn’t really living through the eyes, bodies, and feelings of others. I was unaware, nutritionally sense-deficient, yet yearning for the deeper context of the world around me.

And speaking of architects, if you’ve gone through six or seven years of school and don’t have humanities as part of your education, it must be challenging to feel these perspectives.

It is indeed the dilemma of the modern designer, romanced by the visual field yet undernourished in the experiential humanistic dynamics most essential for designing enriching spaces that promote wellbeing.

Some people also practice design theory without actually living in the lived experience. If you’re designing for a healthcare environment, for example, you have to understand that you’re designing for the voices that are living it. There have to be forums where we can invite people to participate in the context of that design.

Speaking of architects, if you’ve gone through six or seven years of school and don’t have humanities as part of your education, it must be challenging to feel these perspectives.

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a healthcare conference. Post-session, one of the attendees said passionately and with conviction: “I loved the topics, but wouldn’t it have been great to have the people we are designing for as part of the discussion?”

And on the other hand, the people who want to be part of that discussion feel like they’re being left out due to the lack of inclusive forums. Living outside of the things we were responsible for designing is not necessarily conducive to creating wonderful living spaces for people.

Natalia: Architectural education, much like medical education, is heavily focused on the technical. We have lost the human dimension in many areas of life.

Keith: I think we’re living in interesting times. When I look at some of the cutting-edge literature that is out there right now, I see more and more the merging of the humanities and the sciences.

Journey Towards Designing With People

Natalia:  I know you’ve done some interesting research on this topic. You talked about incorporating the voices of persons living with disabilities or neurodiverse people, especially people with dementia, into the design process. Could you tell us a little bit more about what your research was about and how such voices can be incorporated into design?

Keith: My interest and thesis work was interdisciplinary, relating to spatial phenomenology, critical disabilities and the inclusion of narratives of the sick and ill, specifically persons living with dementia within long term care homes. 

My journey and formal education, funny enough, started informally at a housewarming hosted by Professor Jamie S. Scott for potential students of a unique self-directed Master’s Interdisciplinary Studies program at York University in Toronto. 

With a glass of courage in hand, I felt like a fish out of water and decided that the only way to get comfortable was to immerse myself in conversation, so I approached the first person I saw and asked what you were studying.

And they said: “Well, I’m studying law, critical disabilities, and mental health, “Wow, really?” I went to another person, and they said: “I’m bridging social sciences, engineering and fine arts.

I thought: “Well, I’ve come to the right place. This is just absolutely amazing…” especially remembering the challenge of finding university programs that would allow such a fluid combination of inquiry and research without borders, I knew I had found a home.

Most professionals live within the brief and the RFP. And there are blinders that come up every day working towards client outcomes, then all of a sudden your faced with the complexity of human experience puts the efficacy of your services into question.

York University’s Interdisciplinary Studies program changed my life. It was wonderful but also challenging because you had to curate your program of study, find and select your supervisors, and design your course of study. It was incredibly entrepreneurial and self-directed, but little did I know it provided the skills and most importantly, confidence in strategic thinking that I use in professional practice today.

So that’s when I started putting all those things together. By getting supervisors who were in healthcare, design, and phenomenology, all these intersections started to happen and helped me curate a program where I could learn. This is where I started to learn about interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, and mixed methods.

My thesis, published in Taylor and Francis Architectural Science Review, was about the narratives of people with dementia. I wanted to determine the experience of persons with dementia within a long-term care home as told from their perspective. With the loss of the voice, many experience a systematic reduction of personhood and identity, people forget there is a person within the patient. 

Without the inclusion of the voice, the practice of architectural design often fails to grasp the cognitive and affective relationships that could transform institutional space into a living space that promotes well-being.

Stella’s Place, Forge Media and Design. Image: Archive of Keith Francis

They were coming from home-like settings into institutions and it was very difficult for them to make adjustments. But often they had the capacity, even through the disadvantages of the condition of dementia, to participate creatively in the articulation of their own space in place.

So myself and Dr. Susan Martha, who helped me design the research because she was also my supervisor, started looking at nursing homes. We found one nursing home, Belmont House, that gave us unprecedented access to the facility.

With the necessary permissions, we videotaped four people who lived there, asked them questions about their experiences, and asked them to articulate what elements within these environments were most meaningful to them.

Belmont House was unique in that it had a central garden space. Sometimes seeing a garden space is as important as being in a garden space. One of the things we observed is that when residents were taken out of their care environment areas of the nursing homes and placed in the garden, their constitution changed completely.

Subscribe to Venetian Letter

You will receive our regular newsletter with blog posts, interviews, books and events on human-focused architecture and urban design.

Their blink rate changed, their vocalization became more animated. They became more expressive, not only in words but also in hand movements. So when we started looking back at the transcripts and the videos of us asking them, “Where did you come from before?” or “Can you describe the home you came from before?” It was absolutely incredible.

They were passionate and articulate in their expressions and talking about where they came from, and it wasn’t just the perspectives of the home like setting. For example, one of the residents talked about the trees above her home street and she put her hands over her head like a canopy.

That was an incredible learning experience for me because the bodily action expression of “trees overhead’ immediately broke the stigma of persons with dementia not having the capacity to articulate themselves in a coherent way. 

Stella’s Place, Forge Media and Design. Image: Archive of Keith Francis

We learned that the anthropomorphizing of objects was particularly salient to the persons’ interviewed when referencing plants, gardens or flowers. It seemed that these memories survived the detriments of dementia, and the depth of meaning comes from the participant’s association with plants as friends, suggesting a greater connection beyond a casual encounter as plant flowers became surrogates for the loss of friends and community.

There are a lot of health care facilities that don’t have garden spaces or access to garden spaces, and it’s quite difficult living in Canada where we have seasonal months, where the winter months come and you don’t have access to these things. 

The other thing that we found is that a person with dementia can articulate what they like and what they don’t like. One person said: “I hate seeing white all the time. I would like to have more pretty colors around me.”

It was really important in the context of this research to build trust. And it’s not part of a design brief when you see it. So one of the things I did is I became a volunteer so that I could spend more time in the facility.

And these people could see my face and I could become more familiar, not only to the people I was interviewing, but also to the personal support workers and the power of attorneys that were there. And that’s what I mean by creating these warm forums where people can participate and help shape.

I really think that, in my case, the personal engagement with residents not only changed my outlook and perception of these wonderful human beings but also fueled my interest in promoting (PD) Participatory design and (CD) Co-design approaches in further research and applied design

How Does a Design Company Use Phenomenology?

Natalia: How does your rich experience apply to your everyday work at a design company?

Keith: At a design company, I’m an Associate and Senior Director of Experience Outcomes. The title is purposeful in name and mission to define positive experience outcomes for human beings. 

Natalia: I haven’t met a lot of people who cover this kind of position in design or architectural companies.

Keith: The experience outcomes are essential to what we do. And I want the title of what I do to be a reminder of all the things I’ve just talked about, which is that experience is definitely part of the whole design perspective. I think all of the key insights that I’ve just explained to you apply to design or design theory.

You can’t live outside of the things you’re responsible for designing. Your palette of design, in terms of aesthetics, that is, materiality, color, light, form, all of these wonderful terms that we typically use in the context of design, have to be in service of the lived experience that design is concerned with.

The principals at Forge allowed me to explore how phenomenology, neuroscience, and transdisciplinarity could be applied to a practice that was working in traditional anecdotal observational formats of applied design.

Phenomenology is not an easy thing for people to understand. So the first thing I did was to explain it to my colleagues in a more accessible way. I divided it into four categories

  1. Feeling
  2. Meaning
  3. Knowing
  4. Doing

Once we had that discussion internally, we started asking how we could do the things we do from that perspective. We started to create these wonderful forums through charrettes. Charrettes have become a way to gather stakeholder opinions within an inclusive forum and understand narratives, lived experience themes.

It’s not a process but has become a cathartic exercise not only for the client partner but also for us as we vicariously or personally live the experience that we are responsible for designing – a precious egg containing identity, personhood, community, culture or history we cannot afford to break.

Keith Francis and Junko Yamakawa at Reimagining Dementia art exhibit. Image: Archive of Keith Francis

Curating forums in a more inclusive way is also something that’s really important because we’re dealing with people with dementia, for example. So how do we curate forums where people can feel comfortable and articulate their own feelings?

We also create exercises where people can express themselves not only verbally, but also metaphorically, choosing  images and metaphors to explain how they feel about themselves and the communities they belong to.

I think the most important thing for us is to give people a voice and a chance to articulate their feelings. There’s a great little mission statement  that we put up when we start charrettes: “No idea is a bad idea. Think outside the box. Activate your voice. It’s not about us, it’s about you.”

And when you set the context like that, it gives people a comfortable forum to start expressing themselves. The richness of that data that you collect can be foundational, becoming a throughline of a larger tapestry of our space and place.

We take those narratives and they become foundational themes or pillars and forms of expression in terms of feeling, meaning, knowing, and then it becomes a framework for design.

What we try to avoid is to go through the whole process, apply your thinking and all the training you’ve had, you create an environment, and then everyone comes back and says, “Well, that’s not me! It’s not what I thought it would be. It doesn’t express who I am as an individual or the community that I’m a part of. I don’t feel comfortable in it. I was never asked about my opinion and my feelings, I can’t stay in that environment because I don’t feel comfortable and I don’t feel safe. In essence, I never had my hand on the pen!”

Timepiece Live/Work by Parabola. Image: Prakash Patel Photography at Parabola

That is why all these words are so important. Autonomy, personhood, safety, spirituality, stigma, joy, wonder, embodiment, consciousness. All of these things that we might think of as somewhat ephemeral are becoming more and more important in the context of architectural design.

It’s not easy for people to do that. Most professionals live within the brief and the RFP. And there are blinders that come up every day working towards client outcomes, then all of a sudden your faced with the complexity of human experience puts the efficacy of your services into question.

The world is changing around us and with it the complexities of human themes. Poverty, loneliness, homelessness, healthcare, food insecurities, forced migration… To circle back to the most important point I made before, you can’t live outside of the things you’re designing for. And then you have to experience what those things are. You have to find ways to invite people in. 

Transdisciplinarity is something amazing. We are embracing neuroscience and it is incredible because apart from the experiential perspectives we can start to think about “why” these experiences happen. 

Natalia: Could you give us some examples of projects, places, or buildings that incorporate the ideas or values we’re discussing today? 

Keith: Yeah, sure. Timepiece is a project in Charlotte, North Caroline, designed by Parabola. The project is incredible because the entire building is what the name suggests: a Timepiece functioning as a sundial as a beam of sunlight focuses through an oculus that marks the passage of time.

Timepiece Live/Work by Parabola. Image: Prakash Patel Photography at Parabola

There’s something ephemeral and honest about its design. It’s devoid of any commercial burnish, and its architecture seems timeless and symbiotic with its placement and not in its displacement. It is a place for and of the Soul – a reminder that architecture can be more than concrete and glass.

I would say the second one is something that Forge Media and Design is really proud of and something that we just finished is Stella’s Place.

Stella’s place is a home for at-risk youth. We did a non-profit project for them. I gotta tell you, the project itself is wonderful. I think it’s a great expression of placemaking, but placemaking doesn’t have our design footprint on it, or our template on it, or our stamp on it. It had the stamp of the individuals.

When we started the project, we literally had to step back and allow people to come into our space and potentially get their hands on the palette and the brush. The thing I was most proud of was the discovery process, the co-design process. It was incredible. It was emotional, cathartic for all.

There were people who normally would not talk to anyone, they felt like they had a place. And we created a place. And by the way, we did it in COVID, so we had to do it virtually. Normally we’d love to do it in person, but we created this virtual place where people could come and express themselves. And the stories were incredibly emotional.

Where this is all leading now, is a personal passion project of mine that recently started called COUP, which stands for the Community of Unlikely Partnerships. The name pretty much says it all. A transdisciplinary endeavor to spark innovative research through unlikely intersections to tackle the complexities of human themes. 

Stella’s Place, Forge Media and Design. Image: Archive of Keith Francis

The fact that a physicist, botanist, mathematician, healthcare practitioner or other rare combinations of subject matter experts could redefine engagements for health and wellbeing is the goal and is full circle to the foundations of interdisciplinarity that I have benefited and continue to enjoy.

To mention one more, the Raise the Garden pilot project is a product of my research experiences, a research project with artful intentions. Using a participatory co-design approach to curate a temporary garden space theme within a long-term care home within the Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) months when access and viewing of green spaces are non-existent with the hope that the engagement may positively contribute to feelings of surprise, joy and wonder.

And the last thing I would say is that I’ve been fortunate to meet wonderful people through amazing intersections of art, culture, design, architecture, advocacy, and research.

Like becoming a member of Reimagining Dementia: A Creative Coalition for Justice. An international group representing 815 members in 33 countries consists of people living with dementia, caregivers, family and community members, advocates and allies, health professionals, artists, academics, policy makers, and others. 

Together, they share a vision of care that promotes inclusion, relationships, creativity, joy, and the possibility of growth for everyone living with dementia. Or engaging with BrainXchange Design and Dementia Community of Practice, or forming global partnerships from Japan through the efficacy of Ikabana Therapy. I’ve been a fortunate human being who recognizes the journey is only beginning.

Subscribe to Venetian Letter

You will receive our regular newsletter with blog posts, interviews, books and events on human-focused architecture and urban design.