Designed environments as learning systems

West London from Richmond Park - Trellick Tower in the centre

How much of designing an environment is consciously about influencing how people use it? And how much of that influence is down to users learning what the environment affords them, and acting accordingly?

The first question’s central what this blog’s been about over the last four years (with ‘products’, ‘systems’, ‘interfaces’ and so on variously standing in for ‘environment’), but many of the examples I’ve used, from anti-sit features to bathrooms and caf├ęs designed to speed up user throughput, only reveal the architect’s (presumed) behaviour-influencing intent in hindsight, i.e. by reviewing them and trying to understand, if it isn’t obvious, what the motivation is behind a particular design feature. While there are examples where the intent is explicitly acknowledged, such as crime prevention through environmental design, and traffic management, it can still cause surprise when a behaviour-influencing agenda is revealed.

Investigating what environmental and ecological psychology have to say about this, a few months ago I came across The Organization of Spatial Stimuli, an article by Raymond G. Studer, published in 1970 [1] – it’s one of the few explicit calls for a theory of designing environments to influence user behaviour, and it raises some interesting issues:

“The nature of the environmental designer’s problem is this: A behavioral system has been specified (within the constraints imposed by the particular human participants and by the goals of the organization of which they are members.) The participants are not presently emitting the specified behaviors, otherwise there would be no problem. It is necessary that they do emit these behaviors if their individual and collective goals are to be realized. The problem then is to bring about the acquisition or modification of behaviors towards the specified states (without in any way jeopardizing their general well-being in the process). Such a change in state we call learning. Designed environments are basically learning systems, arranged to bring about and maintain specified behavioral topologies. Viewed as such, stimulus organization becomes a more clearly directed task. The question then becomes not how can stimuli be arranged to stimulate, but how can stimuli be arranged to bring about a requisite state of behavioral affairs.

[E]vents which have traditionally been regarded as the ends in the design process, e.g. pleasant, exciting, stimulating, comfortable, the participant’s likes and dislikes, should be reclassified. They are not ends at all, but valuable means which should be skilfully ordered to direct a more appropriate over-all behavioral texture. They are members of a class of (designed environmental) reinforcers. These aspects must be identified before behavioral effects of the designed environment can be fully understood.”

Now, I think it’s probably rare nowadays for architects or designers to talk of design features as ‘stimuli’, even if they are intended to influence behaviour. Operant conditioning and B.F. Skinner’s behaviourism are less fashionable than they once were. But the “designed environments are learning systems” point Studer makes can well be applied beyond simply ‘reinforcing’ particular behaviours.

Think how powerful social norms and even framing can be at influencing our behaviour in environments – the sober environment of a law court gives (most of) us a different range of perceived affordances to our own living room (social norms, mediated by architecture) – and that’s surely something we learn. Frank Lloyd Wright intentionally designed dark, narrow corridors leading to large, bright open rooms (e.g. in the Yamamura House) so that the contrast – and people’s experience – was heightened (framing, of a sort) – but this effect would probably be lessened by repeated exposure. It still influenced user behaviour though, even if only the first few times, but the memory of the effect that such a room had those first few times probably lasted a lifetime. Clearly, the process of forming a mental model about how to use a product, or how to behave in an environment, or how to behave socially, is about learning, and the design of the systems around us does educate us, in one way or another.

Stewart Brand’s classic How Buildings Learn (watch the series too) perhaps suggests (among other insights) an extension of the concept: if, when we learn what our environment affords us, this no longer suits our needs, the best architecture may be that which we can adapt, rather than being constrained by the behavioural assumptions designed into our environments by history.

I’m not an architect, though, or a planner, and – as I’ve mentioned a few times on the blog – it would be very interesting to know, from people who are: to what extent are notions of influencing behaviour taught as part of architectural training? This series of discussion board posts suggests that the issue is definitely there for architecture students, but is it framed as a conscious, positive process (e.g. “funnel pedestrians past the shops”), a reactionary one (e.g. “use pebbled paving to make it painful for hippies to congregate“), one of educating users through architectural features (as in Studer’s suggestion), or as something else entirely?

[1] Studer, R.G. ‘The Organization of Spatial Stimuli.’ In Pastalan, L.A. and Carson, D.H. (eds.), Spatial Behavior of Older People. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1970.

Dan Lockton

3 thoughts on “Designed environments as learning systems”

  1. I see lots of blog posts in Google News search, and, less commonly, web forum posts in Google Groups search. My guess is that Google detects blogs and forums when it spiders the web and treats them as news and as groups, respectively, which makes a fair amount of sense.

    With blogs, it’s likely the presence of an rss feed that does it. This site has two. Most blogs have at least one. Check what’s hitting your feeds and you’re likely to find that some Google crawler has subscribed to them, along with however-many humans.

    Forums tend to have recognizable structure to them that can be heuristically identified by bots. (Spambots have historically tended to do so!)

    If it refers you more traffic, I don’t think there’s cause for complaint. Obscurity is the thing to worry about, not “unauthorized use” which usually simply means unexpected use.

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