May 30, 2013
By Mark Vander Voort, AIA, LEED AP, Associate Principal, Education Group Director, HKS, Inc.

As an architect, I am aware of subconscious impressions transmitted by physical environments, built or natural. In fact, these perceptions are the palette we work with to influence human behavior and response. Beyond technical and aesthetic aspects of our profession, architects are perceptual psychologists and experience designers.

There is a field of study known as environmental psychology, which is slightly different from architecture. It involves the interplay between human beings and their surroundings, in lieu of just the surroundings themselves. It relates our present-day perceptual habits to innate sensory mechanisms that have evolved over eons and have enhanced our success as a species.

Two of the most important perceptual skills leading to that success have been face recognition and place recognition. Face recognition is the ability to interpret expressions and body language. From wayfinding to shelter to understanding appropriateness for different uses, activities, groups and events, place recognition is integral to our personal and collective being.

Collectively and individually, we innately evaluate place through our perceptual impressions using four basic flters:

  1. Human instincts - we are hard-wired to appreciate natural references and amenities, which can include daylight, views, fresh air, natural materials, organic patterns, etc.
  2. Individual preferences - personality traits, having options, mood and emotional state, intellectual intrigue, individual motivations and aspirations
  3. Socio-cultural implications - institutional intentions, public or private, safety and security, group or community benefits
  4. Spatial functionality – congruence with context, activity and purpose

With regard to architecture, perceptual communications are conveyed through contexts of space, form, light, color, object and material. These component expressions form a design language that informs user perceptions.

In fact, architecture could be defined as elements in our built (or virtual) environment that stimulate and enhance physical, emotional and intellectual experience. The infinite variety and complexity of those creates more interest. Experience can take place as immediately perceived events, or as a sense of wisdom gained over time. When designing for heightened and memorable experiences, it is important to engage all senses and minimize any distracting cues.

Humans naturally prefer and seek out experiences that are relevant, meaningful, pleasant, empathetic and motivationally aligned with their current goals in life. Our built environment evokes an attitude and dynamic awareness of possibilities in life – physical, social, ideological, political, nostalgic and prophetic.

Architects contemplate design solutions in holistic terms that users will ultimately perceive. In that sense, architects are experience designers, brand developers and environmental psychologists. Beyond shelter, architecture is a stage set for life.

For more information, contact Mark VanderVoort at

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