Understanding the Science of Design

By Deborah Briers, MBA posted 10-09-2015 15:46



Do you ever wonder why something just “feels” right? Where the expression “love at first sight” comes from? Why one headline grabs your attention while another leaves you flat? What the difference is between presentations that engage your attention and those that make you snore? How about the reason why we love listening to stories yet tune out when presented with just facts?

The answers to all these questions can be found in our brains.

Emotional Engagement

Advances in neuroscience are enabling us to better understand psychology, sociology, emotional health, environmental design, consumer behavior, attraction and many other fields of study previously dominated by the study of rodent behavior or surveys. For those of us who like to know “WHY”, the intersection of neurology with human factors is an area of immense fascination.

When applied to branding, digital design and content, this research shows us why humans are innately attracted to some things (nature, space, views, color, images, design layouts, fonts, etc.), and tune-out others. We are also learning more about the human decision-making mechanism, enabling professional services firms to create highly effective marketing campaigns and project pursuit strategies.

Design Psychology

My interest in the link between brain function and decision-making is the result of watching firms I’ve worked for apply this concept to urban planning, residential master planning, architecture and sustainable (or resilient) design. Early in my career I worked with an exceptionally smart and innovative woman, Susan Painter, PhD, FCPA, at AC Martin Partners in Downtown Los Angeles. She worked with the firm’s planning and design team to develop a prototype student housing model that proved to successfully increase student retention rates at a university. How?

With a background in Psychology, she used her knowledge of brain development to determine how to address the issue of retaining Freshman through graduation. At the time, approximately 50% of freshmen starting at a 4-year University withdrew before their junior year. She deduced that this was because students were moving into apartments where they were isolated, preventing them from engaging with others. Drawing upon her knowledge of brain development, she theorized that this was happening because young students’ brains are not yet mature enough to support an entirely independent life-style.

Susan’s research resulted in the design of a 400-bed “freshman-engagement” housing complex by AC Martin at CSU Northridge. The cluster housing concept provided young students with multiple levels of engagement – family, neighborhood and community – providing them with the supportive relationships an 18-year old needs to survive the rigors of leaving home and entering college.

After the project was completed and students had moved in, a post-occupancy study compared 83 freshman in the new student-engagement housing with 122 freshman in campus apartments. A post-occupation adaption-to-college assessment study was completed. The data showed that first year students living in the cluster style housing had higher academic, personal/emotional, and overall adjustment scores. (The case study is available here if you are interested in more details.)

Several years later my career brought me to Danielian Associates, a firm that specializes in master planning, community design and single and multi-family housing. At the 2014 International Builders’ Show I attended sessions where I learned that women make 85% of a household’s purchasing decisions and that most homebuyers determine whether or not they like a home within 60 seconds of experiencing it.

It occurred to me that the same neuroscience-based research that resulted in the successful cluster-student housing concept, and applied widely in educational and healthcare design, also applies to residential design. I embarked upon extensive research on how spaces affect us emotionally and physically. I’m currently working on a series of articles titled “Sold in 60 Seconds” which focuses on the characteristics of spaces that make people instantly feel at home.

Content that Engages

Having become part of an emerging group of content marketing specialists, my on-going quest is to work with small-to-midsize firms to initiate, internalize and/or improve the quality of their content in order to convey big ideas in byte size, brand-focused pieces. Storytelling is a key piece of this puzzle. It is a form of communication that the human brain is hard-wired to absorb. Firms throughout the country that have adopted this client engagement marketing model, using stories to drive their visual and written communication, have proven that content-based marketing increases growth and profitability in today’s highly competitive, commoditized, professional services market.

Deborah Briers, CPSM, MBA, is the Chief Content Creator and Storyteller at DB Creative Communications. Over the past 20 years Debbie has seen how professional services sales have evolved from repeat business and referrals into today’s complicated procurement processes and delivery methods.