Where psychology meets architecture

June 01, 2005 |

Imagine how much more effective the design process would be if you knew what your clients were really thinking.

What colors inspire them? How do they interact with their physical environments? How does sunlight make them feel?

Answers to such questions are rarely gathered during typical pre-design planning sessions. For one thing, design teams rarely delve that deeply into the human psyche of end users. And most people have difficulty verbalizing this kind of subjective information, says Christine Del Sole.

"Research shows that only 5% of what the average person thinks can be expressed verbally," says Del Sole. The other 95% is hidden deep within the subconscious.

Del Sole's Pittsburgh-based consulting firm, fathom, applies a staid research technique to probe the conscious and subconscious thoughts of user groups and then translates these thoughts into design approaches. Think of it as a shrink session for building occupants.

Developed by Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman, the technique has been used for years by Coca-Cola, DuPont, and other Fortune 500 companies as a market research tool for product and brand development. Now, fathom is bringing it to the architectural community to help designers create better environments.

"We ask questions a typical designer would not ask, and in ways that uncover the deepest thoughts," says Del Sole.

Key to the process is the use of art therapy during initial one-on-one interviews with end users. "We ask them to bring six to eight images that explain their thoughts and feelings about their most recent experience at the facility," says Del Sole. "It's a snapshot of what's going on inside their head."

Fathom consultants then analyze the resulting graphical collages to look for common metaphorsideas like "transformation," "energy," "control"among the group of end users. "With the metaphors, we're able conduct brainstorming sessions where we come up with design and human objectives that tie back to those metaphors," she says.

These objectives are then matched with the client's programmatic needs to come up with a prioritized design guide.

Del Sole points to the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, currently under construction, as an example. One-on-one interviews with 29 patients, nurses, and doctors resulted in metaphors like "control," "energy," and "connection."

"The children wanted the new hospital to feel home-like and comfortable, but not too much like home because they felt that they wanted to be able to leave [the hospital]," says Del Sole. As a result, the architects reworked the design scheme, introducing bright, vibrant colors, softer materials, and patient-friendly features: a healing garden, private rooms, and individual temperature controls for patient rooms.

"We also found that the kids were very intimated by the height of the beds," says Del Sole. "We're working with a manufacturer to design a bed that is much lower to the ground, but can be raised when nurses and doctors come in."

Since launching in June 2004, fathom has completed research programs for eight projects, including a public library, a high-rise condo tower, and a public park. Healthcare and residential have been its strongest markets, says Del Sole, and she is looking to expand into the K-12 market. "Figuring out what the kids need and want in a learning environment would be fascinating," she says.

For more: www.gofathom.com.

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