Empathy Figure 1

Empathy in Design: Measuring How Faces Make Places

Since 2015, Ragusa, Sicily has hosted FestiWall, an international art festival devoted to enhancing the public realm and improving citizen engagement with the modern section of an old city. The image above shows two views of a residential tower before and after FestiWall. Which one grabs your eye?

We’ll guess you’re drawn to the one with the art at right. Running the image through biometric software predicts you’ll immediately focus on the man in the mural.

And that’s what the analyses above shows. Note how the heat map, at left, which glows reddest where people look most, is on the face; the regions of interest diagram, which aggregates predicted views, indicates 98% of viewers look straight at his head. And the gaze path, at right, shows people look first at the face, then briefly away before focusing right back on it again within the first 3 to 5 seconds.

And what happens if the building remains as is, blank? Not much! 

The brain directs you to ignore the building. The grey wall simply cannot get attention. Note how the heat map, above left, shows up black, with views going around it; the regions of interest diagram, in the center, makes focus shift to the sides, and the gaze path indicates people’s attention moves to the street below, never once settling on the tower, even though it’s directly centered before the viewer.

“The festival’s main goal is to open a dialogue between urban spaces and communities using city’s walls and street art as a medium,” say its founders, Vincenzo Cascone and Antonio Sortino. “This could be the first step towards a new perspective and a new development of the city.”

These striking efforts caught the attention of Caterina D’Amica and Isabel Gorham, students at the Boston Architectural College (BAC) who were interested in the way different murals engage the public, and which ones do so most effectively. They presented their findings, including the scenes above, last month.

“We compared and contrasted abstract FestiWall murals, with those with faces, with the original blank facades,” D’Amica and Gorham said. “The most successful murals, where attention is not dispersed, are the ones containing a face, a human form, and people in general.”

“Where the murals represent a person or a face, the attention is focused almost exclusively on the faces or faces,” they reported, supporting the science on the face bias in human perception. “Our brain is hardwired to find them; it’s a survival instinct.” Blank buildings, on the other hand, are “avoidant, and the eye does not pay attention to them, our vision diverted to edges, contrast, strong colors and light,” they added.

FestiWall murals are also a great example of empathy in design; the art that works best acknowledges first and foremost what we are built to see: a version of ourselves! This hidden brain architecture directs our lives including our experience of buildings and our surroundings, whether we like it or not, and it always will.

It all goes to show how to best promote empathy in design: Start with us, respecting the hidden traits that make us human.

This essay originally appeared in The Genetics of Design, a website exploring the connection between cognitive science and the built environment. All photos courtesy of The Genetics of Design.


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