Design Implications of Spatial Cognition Research


A full day intensive organized by EDRAMOVE


Saif Haq and Sue Torgrude, Co-Chairs

Location: EDRA Annual Conference, Palmer House Hotel, Chicago, IL

Time: Wednesday, May 25th 2011



Translating research into ‘specific applications’ or even professional ‘best practices’ is a difficult task. This becomes much more complicated when multiple disciplines are involved. Spatial cognition research is done in many disciplines with sophisticated methods, yet its application is arguably highly relevant for the professional aspect of architects, landscape architects, interior designers, urban designers and planners. In this regard, perhaps the most useful piece of information for the designer will be those aspects of the physical world that afford greater cognitive presence, and the activities that they are related to. Ironically, despite many and varied researches on spatial cognition, few authors have critically studied its applicability to architectural design. On the design side, professionals can benefit from both field research and published literature to guide solutions that support good person-environment fit. If designers are to accomplish this, access to research and understanding its implications are important to success. This intensive focuses on Spatial Cognition research, and translating that knowledge into architectural applications. The topics to be addressed are: How can the field of spatial cognition help us make (no little) plans? What aspects of practice can be influenced by this field of research, and in what stage of design? The intensive brings together an energetic group of people who will explore the intersection of spatial cognition research and its design applications. It will have a series of presentations followed by focused discussion.




1.       Implications of Spatial Cognition Research for the Architectural Design Disciplines,

Deborah Zervas, WxYX Design, USA,

2.       Evaluating the campus-downtown relationship: spatial configuration of four college towns in small U.S. metropolitan regions and implications on design of public places

Anirban Adhya, Lawrence Technological University, USA,

3.      A spatial cognition framework for understanding wayfinding in buildings

Laura Carlson, Notre Dame University, USA,

Christoph Hölscher, University of Freiburg, Germany,

Thomas Shipley, Temple University, Philadelphia, and

Ruth Conroy Dalton, Northumbria University, United Kingdom, 4.      Not all users are the same: The role of spatial skills in navigation in and memory for buildings

Thomas Shipley, Temple University, Philadelphia,

Laura Carlson, Notre Dame University, USA,

Christoph Hölscher, University of Freiburg, Germany, 5.      Where do people walk in hospitals and why should architects care

Saif Haq, Texas Tech University, USA,

6.      Kindergarten kids in motion: Rethinking inclusive classrooms for optimal learning

Coralee McLaren, University of Toronto,

7.      Integrating Cognitive, Artificial Intelligence, and Architectural Approaches to Spatial Mapping

Jonathan Ericson, Brown University, USA,

8.      Improving airport signage: Eye-tracking for an evidence-based design approach.

Simon Büchner - University of Freiburg, Germany, Christoph Hölscher, University of Freiburg, Germany, Gregor Kallert- Fraport AG, Frankfurt, Germany, Volker Döring, Frankfurt International Airport, Germany,

Jan Wiener - University of Bournemouth, United Kingdom, 1.     Implications of Spatial Cognition Research for the Architectural Design Disciplines.


Deborah Zervas


While environmental psychology studies that explain how people experience and know spatial environments are familiar to designers, recent findings of cognitive science have yet to inform three-dimensional design practice.  Results from spatial cognition research offer many insights that can be used to develop design rationales for the architectural disciplines. A review of research in navigation, visual intelligence, and spatial knowledge acquisition and storage yields mechanisms and processes that can be co-opted and facilitated by designers to accommodate how people learn, remember and use space.  Built examples are found in architectural and landscape design. Spatial cognition research also has implications for the representation of architectural designs.


Spatial cognition findings suggest that classical design elements and ordering principles such as axis, facade, focal point, and hierarchy assist users in spatial knowledge acquisition, by mapping onto mental architecture. These strategies resonate with spatial knowledge types (landmark, route, configurational), mental representational structure (hierarchical), and navigational processes (momentary, egocentric), thereby affording legibility and coherence. Classical and Lynch-ian rubrics therefore have continuing utility in contemporary landscape and building design. 


Cognitive science research also clarifies environmental psychology findings that people are motivated by mystery and complexity in landscape experience.  Examining these preferences with reference to spatial knowledge and its representation reveals resonances that present additional design opportunities.  Cognitive map attributes (distorted, schematic, net-worked, multi-media, hierarchical) and navigation processes (constructive, momentary) suggest design approaches that feature patterned, multivalent, layered and/or collaged spaces.  Such complex spaces are also supported by visual intelligence research, which argues for improved visual processing ability of the general public based on the sophisticated techniques of contemporary media. 


Spatial cognition research can also inform design representation.  Collage is one tested medium that maps onto cognitive structures and processes. Pilot experiments demonstrate heightened non-expert comprehension of select aspects of landscape design when represented by collage compared to architectural drawing.



2.     Evaluating the campus-downtown relationship: spatial configuration of four college towns in small U.S. metropolitan regions and implications on design of public places


Anirban Adhya


A case study of four college towns in small metropolitan regions in the United States is discussed. Specifically, organization of the campus and the downtown is examined in each city. The urban spatial analysis highlights a dynamic but distinct campus-downtown relationship pattern across the four urban systems. The physical relationship varies from being overlapping (in Ann Arbor, MI), close (in Athens, GA), separate (in Tallahassee, FL), to distant (in Lansing, MI), with varying boundary condition between them. Nature of this boundary between the campus and the downtown is investigated as a critical factor in perception of publicness and in design of public places. Relationship between the physical environment and its perception is examined through a comparative analysis of 25 settings in each city through (1) multiple sorting task interview outcomes (meanings of publicness) for the places and (2) syntactic properties of the settings (spatial configuration).


The comparative analysis reveals that the spatial configuration of the public realm is highly formative of the perceived qualities of publicness. When considering profiles of publicness in places (highly public to highly private); spatial properties and design may play a stronger role. For example, integrated nature of the campus-downtown configuration (high connectivity, high accessibility, high intelligibility) is identified with interspersed use of university and city spaces, leading to perception of higher degree of publicness in different urban settings. Thus for design purposes, overlap of use (or mixed use) becomes a key factor in enhanced perception of publicness and greater extent of public activities in the urban environment. A close campus-downtown interaction creates places where multiple features of interest converge. This premise can be applied in designing these settings as important destinations for different groups of people, emphasizing overlapping use pattern, a functional approach to publicness, and the “role of destination” in popularity and use of places.


The study can also be used to develop a design framework through evaluation of spatial organization and design of the campus-downtown relationship. The evaluative model suggests the following factors critical to urban design of college towns or similar small town: A strong integration between the downtown and campuses (college campus, government enclave, office park, and other niche market facilities) is paramount. This can be achieved through presence of the campus and overlapping functions (mixed use) in the central core. An integrated spatial configuration also reinforces the notion of mixed-use development propagated by many traditional and neo-traditional developments such as that of the New Urbanism.


Emphasis on people and their functional needs is critical. The study reveals that people and their activities are the two most important aspects of design. Therefore, to ensure successful public places, the design should be relevant to everyday experience and user activities.



3.     A spatial cognition framework for understanding wayfinding in buildings


Laura Carlson, Christoph Hölscher, Thomas Shipley, and Ruth Conroy Dalton


People often get lost in buildings, including but not limited to libraries, hospitals, conference centers, and shopping malls. In this talk we present an integrative framework derived from established research in spatial cognition that encompasses and inter-relates three factors that contribute to wayfinding difficulties.  First, previous research using space syntax analysis has shown that the spatial structure of the building significantly impacts wayfinding, with correlations between intelligibility scores and ease of wayfinding.  Second, there are systematic distortions in the cognitive maps that users construct for explored environments, with some elements preferentially encoded (such as objects at decision points) and some locations regularized (such as representing a hallway with two segments that involve a small change in direction as being straight).  Third, there are distinct strategies that users adopt when navigating in a building, such as learning the route from an egocentric or allocentric perspective. These strategies are also likely impacted by individual characteristics of the users, such as their spatial ability and working memory capacity.  A key feature of our integrative framework is to focus on the intersections of

these factors.   These include the correspondence between the building and

the cognitive map, the completeness of the cognitive map as a function of the strategies and individual abilities of the users, and the compatibility between the building and the strategies and individual abilities of the users.  In turn these all combine to predict an index of complexity that predicts wayfinding performance in a given building.



4.     Not all users are the same: The role of spatial skills in navigation in and memory for buildings


Thomas Shipley, Laura Carlson and Christoph Hölscher


Imagine arriving at a medical building for an appointment with a new doctor. You have never been in this building before, and when you arrive at the front door, you consult the directory to determine the office number.  With this in hand, you now need to find your way to the office, making numerous decisions such as when to turn and when to continue down a given corridor. At some point, you arrive at the doctor’s office for your appointment.  Our interest in the current study is how you find your way back to your car when your appointment is over.  You likely encoded some information into the cognitive map that you constructed during your initial path.  We are interested in the nature of this information, focusing on the encoding of objects and their locations.  Most past research has considered the objects and their locations as single units.  In the current study, we question the idea that objects and locations are indeed represented as single units, using tasks that differentially assess these components, and assess the degree of consistency, both within and across participants.  An important aspect of this work is our examination of how the representation of object and location information are influenced by individual characteristics of the users, including spatial ability, working memory, gender, and experience.



5.     Where do people walk in hospitals and why should architects care?


Saif Haq


Distribution of walking visitors inside complex buildings is an issue that is infrequently considered important during architectural schematic or design phases. When it is, the discussion usually focuses on wayfinding, and dominant topics become signage, interior surface design/architectural differentiation, or visual access. We now know that the ‘layout’ of facilities, something that is designed very early in the design process, is a very important aspect, and configuration, the structural hierarchy of individual spaces in a layout that arises due to the topological relationship of each space to all others, affords varying opportunities of visitor explorations and search patterns. Since the topological aspects of configuration can be modeled from plan drawings with Space Syntax, perhaps as early as in the schematic design phase, it can become a powerful tool for designing ‘wayfinding-friendly’ buildings.


This presentation includes a brief literature review and demonstrates a hypothetical design exercise for a hospital extension project using Space Syntax technology.



6.     Kindergarten kids in motion: Rethinking inclusive classrooms for optimal learning


Coralee McLaren


Moving about and playing freely in indoor and outdoor environments is important for children’s physical, psychological, and social well being. Research from the field of cognitive neuroscience indicates that movement also enhances children's ability to learn and communicate. Very little is known about how children use their bodies’ capacities for movement and how they interact with physical features of their everyday environments. This knowledge gap is particularly problematic for children with physical disabilities because gross and fine motor impairments restrict their ability to move. Exclusionary attitudes, safety concerns and environmental barriers also curtail their ability to explore their surroundings. In this paper, I will present an exploratory study that describes how disabled and non-disabled children move, gesture and interact naturally in an integrated kindergarten classroom. Children’s bodies are conceptualized according to Gilles Deleuze’s philosophical premise that any body’s potential is unknown until it is allowed to demonstrate ‘what it can do’, and the integrated classroom is conceptualized according to James Gibson’s theory of affordances, which posits that environments are inherently discoverable and that people and their environments are inextricably interrelated. Child-and disability-friendly ethnographic methods used to study a class of 8 disabled and 12 non-disabled children will also be presented. Data gathered through these innovative methods will be used to i) describe classroom objects, features and pathways according to the functions they afford children, and ii) analyze children’s movement using Laban’s Movement Analysis techniques. To conclude, I will draw on preliminary findings from this study to increase understandings about environmental features that enhance or inhibit children’s movement capacities. This knowledge could also be used to optimize environments that support children’s right to move freely within them, interventions to develop their social, cognitive and physical capacities, and educational and rehabilitation strategies that encourage children to explore, navigate and shape their everyday environments.



7.     Integrating Cognitive, Artificial Intelligence, and Architectural Approaches to Spatial Mapping


Jonathan Ericson


Cognitive scientists and roboticists have proposed and in some cases experimentally tested Euclidean and topological representations of space as models of human spatial knowledge.  Independent of these efforts, architectural theorists have derived formal, quantitative descriptions of built environments.  While some researchers have correlated these spatial representations and environmental descriptors with measures of human spatial knowledge and path selection behavior (see Franz, Mallot, & Wiener, 2005, for a review), systematic experimental investigation has been hindered by a lack of communication among these fields.  In addition, many of the cognitively-inspired models of human spatial knowledge and navigation make problematic assumptions.  In general, these assumptions reveal a need for experiments aimed at elucidating the role of environmental geometry in constraining human exploration behavior, route planning, and spatial knowledge.  This paper weighs the relative merits of various spatial representations that have been proposed in the theoretical and experimental literature currently available in the fields of cognitive science, artificial intelligence (robotics), and architecture.  A critical and interdisciplinary evaluation of these literatures suggests an experimental paradigm for investigating the relationship between environmental geometry and the geometry of human spatial knowledge.



8.     Improving airport signage: Eye-tracking for an evidence-based design approach.


Büchner, S.J., Hölscher, C., Kallert, G., Döring, V., & Wiener, J.


When creating signage for wayfinding a high number of constraints have to be taken into account in order to come up with a viable solution. It requires, for example, decisions about the sign’s content, its arrangement and the placement of the signs. The current project was carried out by a team of visual designers and spatial cognition researchers at Frankfurt International Airport in cooperation with Fraport AG.


At the location being investigated a large amount of people had to be directed from multiple inbound corridors to different destinations (gates, passport control, security checks, exit etc.). Depending on the local structure a good solution was sometimes straightforward; sometimes it was difficult to come up with.

At locations with a more complex structure different design solutions seemed to be reasonable. For these situations different solutions, which were created by the designers, were evaluated in an eye-tracking study. Participants were seated in front of a computer and presented with photographs of a situation and were then asked to make a navigation decision through the keyboard. The photographs either showed the status quo or different design alternatives of signage which were photo-shopped into the scenes. While participants were looking at the scenes their eye-movements were recorded. After participants had selected a path they were asked to indicate how confident they were about their decision.


Eye-movements, indicating the allocation of attention, decision errors, response times, and confidence ratings were analyzed in order to decide which design solution suited best. The eye-tracking data showed how quick and how long the relevant information on the sign was looked at. Error rates and response times showed how good and how fast participants made their decision while the confidence ratings showed how confident people felt after having made the decision.


The results allowed us to make an educated decision for a particular design which then was installed.