Don’t Just Think About Design, Feel It

Our reaction to our environment can be hard to quantify at times, but it may be that we should be doing less counting and more feeling. This is no different than the subtlety with which we interpret our own non-verbal communication. Since humans can interpret meaning in millimeter differences of facial expressions and since we have an innate sense of finding human characteristics in almost everything we see - from art to inanimate objects - there is a psychological relationship between the form of what we design and the meaning people derive from it.

In his book, "The Architecture of Happiness", Alain DeBotton writes about a psychologist’s study where respondents use a simple line drawing to describe a happy relationship and then a relationship filled with tension, argument and anger. Results were categorical - happy relationships are bubbly clouds, angry ones are jagged snarls. So what does this tell us? It is our non-verbal limbic brain - the part that deals with our gut or our emotion - speaking. Design, speaks in this way as well.

In a typical design process, we spend a significant amount of time wrestling with the logic of our decision making, pursuing the illusive modern architectural goal of creating rationalized "machines for living". This is the practice we have grown accustomed to in the world of big data. We humans are comfortable in that realm because we use our neocortex for such reasoning and data correlation, but if we forget to engage the silent emotive portion of our brain in the process, we will miss the most human part of design’s impact.

if we forget to engage the silent emotive portion of our brain in the process, we will miss the most human part of design’s impact.

While the limbic brain is an older place evolutionarily in our mind, it has deep roots in our psychological sense of wellbeing, our sense of place and our connection to our environment. It’s no coincidence that Alzheimer’s disease causes damage to the limbic brain. Another more rare condition, Kluver-Bucy syndrome is related to damage in the limbic brain and can be characterized by an inability to recognize objects or faces. In design, this subtle center of abstract recognition cannot be forgotten amid the logic and data being amassed to justify our work to our more evolved neocortical minds.

Design has a base appeal to our gut that is immeasurable. Our ability to listen to that call with the rigor that we dig for logical justification can be every bit as important as finding hard metrics. When we describe a design as dynamic or aggressive, quiet or subdued, we show a recognition of it’s limbic appeal and open a window into the feel of the environment we create. This is not unlike the way a grin, smirk or frown may inform our next few words in a conversation. Humans are a remarkable blend of logic and instinct and our design should be informed by the context of both.