Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Your Brain on Place

What is design? It's where you stand with a foot in two worlds - the world of technology and the world of people and human purposes - and you try to bring the two together.

 --Mitchell Kapor, founder of Lotus software

Social spaces

The first order of business for space design is to understand and work with the human dynamics of placemaking whether at a theme park, museum, resort, cruise ship, or mini-golf course. It is the human system that will dictate design go or no-go.  The most ingenious design is only as good as the first human experience of that design, the user encounter that makes or breaks the experience.

These principles of deep design apply equally to space stations, supermarkets, libraries, airports, factories, convention centers, and cafes.  We need these places to be clearly hospitable, organized, workable spaces that accommodate and encourage our hyper-social natures.  At the opposite end of the scale, studies of solitary confinement (“the box”) and its devastating effects on the psyche show exactly how dehumanizing denial of our social nature can be—ending in madness and suicide. 

Punishment is closely predicated on space control, even under house arrest.  We are built for social life in social situations; our problems are with the uncontrolled experiments with social venues and their less-than-ideal outcomes that play against specific cultural constraints. These are the “human factors” that dictate the ideal setting for the activity it embraces.       

Brain and culture agendas

Phase One is to understand the user on the ground (a lifetime occupation in itself).  In most studios, this is a seat-of-the-pants body of shop knowledge based on past design forays, both good and bad.  As observant designers put it, however, the learning curve post-building can be drawn as a flat line. But now there is enough brain science awareness around so that neuroscience can and should be integrated with design intuition. 

The brain base for design is the universals of perception and movement that operate across time and geography, common to all human beings, driving our motivation and decision making in all settings. Discrete cultural values (American, Chinese, Brazilian) are an overlay on the universals.

Every designed journey—the visit context--sets the mental agenda, and that agenda is always based on universals of age, gender, culture, and community.  How and what the brain is focused on depends on where we are at any given moment, and within that locale—showroom, classroom, stadium, or cruising the open ocean—how old we are, whether we’re male or female, and the reference group (the travel unit) we find ourselves with at the time.  Space is negotiated between people and the elements most affecting the brain.

Creating any design involves clarifying the cultural issues—the leading values that motivate us all under the conscious radar—active in any idea, product, or experience that operate not just personally but broadly across groups. This is the essence of the “wisdom of crowds.”  Culture is the record of all human expression not only ancient but prehistorical, going back more than the 37,000 years documentable by artifacts.  Culture is both hard-wired (for basic values) and adaptive (by situation), informing our collective behavior every minute of the day.  It operates under conscious awareness, which makes it difficult to identify as the prime directive of all we do. Thus it must be deliberately sought out and identified as the moving force in any piece of design.

Personal space

Two basics are in play: first, the need for personal space, and second, mood control.  The personal space requirement is actually most important in public space, where we interact with strangers, which runs an agenda of risk-management.  In any public situation, we are always asking, “Is my personal boundary being respected here?” a variation of the bigger question we ask about place:  “How am I being treated here?”  Many public spaces simply disqualify themselves out of the gate because they are perceived as a threat to the invisible bubble around the body that defines “me” versus “you” and “others.”

Concerts have a well-deserved young audience simply because part of their reward is close-proximity bonding through heart-pounding music. Over forty (following the age chart) demands a more generous spatial distribution. And family-friendly is even more demanding than other space types because child safety, a function of the family-unit space, is considered a non-negotiable given (for American venues).  

After the personal space and travel unit bubble come crowding and noise as part of environmental press.  These two aspects alone raise a suite of questions: How crowded can or will the space become?  How fast are people moving, and how often? Will this crowding impinge on personal space, and on noise tolerance?  What are the noise levels, from what noise source?

Mood setting

Music is the master mood-setter.  What genres create the right emotional cueing for an exhibit, show, ride, or other attraction?  How will it work within the architecture / structures of the site? 

This question is key to how we determine “too loud” not by decibels, but by style. Where classical music is fine, heavy metal is not; and safety sense determines how much conflicting sound can be tolerated (rock, punk, and rap overcoming others).  Class cues tied to musical types determine whether these will be non-starters for the middle class.  What sound and levels can work in the super-safe themeatics of Disney parks is far less tolerated in thrill-based urban parks like Six Flags in New Jersey.

The brain baseline

The cultural values set is also the master style sheet.  It does something very useful in that role – providing the basic tool set for understanding all the background information of the project, as well as the template by which each design option can be compared and ranked for suitability to the mental platform of the audience.  This is a working definition of brain-based design.

There is plenty of information around – too much, in fact.  Without some baseline, some set of “file folders” for research results, backdrop information may all be “true, but not useful.”  What is the usefulness on the ground of the information you have on your clientele or prospects; where does it fit the purpose of the project?  We are often asked to apply cultural analysis to fathom the client question, “What is my research trying to tell me?”  Just a few of the answers, like those above, can make or break any design made for humans.



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