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You Are Here: Interview with author Colin Ellard (part 1 of 3)

Posted in Behavioral Science, Points of Interest, White Paper on June 8th, 2010 by Mark VanderKlipp – Be the first to comment

This is the first in a series of interviews with Colin Ellard, author of “You Are Here – Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon but Get Lost at the Mall.” When the book came out in 2009, we first read it cover to cover, then sent an email to Colin to ask more specific questions about wayfinding in general. We hope you enjoy these excerpts from our interview.

You Are Here, by Colin Ellard

You Are Here, by Colin Ellard

Corbin:
As environmental graphic designers, we work every day designing solutions for people who get lost. We’ve found an increasing awareness on the part of clients for our services, and an increasing expectation of a well-designed environment from their target audiences. Did you write this book to respond to this trend, or conversely, have you seen an outpouring of interest from people who have finally “seen the light” as far as the value of wayfinding?

Ellard:
I’ll be completely honest about this and tell you that I came to this subject by a long and idiosyncratic route. I began scientific life as a student of animal behaviour, focused on how animals found their way but also how they used their understanding of space to cope with the basic problems of life: finding food, shelter, defense from predators, and so on.

It was only in 2005 that I began to think about the wider implications of the work I was doing. I remember thinking that it would be a great way to understand how animals processed spatial information if, rather than me building all kinds of contraptions to test their abilities, they could just somehow build their OWN contraptions. I blush now when I think of how long it took for me to realize that there is such an animal, and of course we’re it.

I began to talk to people who were in the business of building spaces — architects and planners. Though designers understood the importance of thinking about how people navigate spaces, they were frustrated by a lack of interest among scientists in putting the connections between design and psychology on an empirical basis. I was thrilled to discover that something I had stumbled on also appeared to be something in which there was a good deal of interest.

So really, I wrote the book to get that kind of project started — a marriage of psychology and design.

Corbin:
We know that design is a business of managing multiple perspectives. But the most important perspective is that of the potential visitor. Do you see a future where behavioral psychology is merged more fully with design disciplines to anticipate those needs? If so, what would the merging of those disciplines look like?

Ellard:
We’re poised at the threshold of doing absolutely brilliant things at the interface of design and psychology. In part this is simply because we’re ready — there’s a great thirst for multidisciplinary approaches to solving real world problems. Increasingly, behavioural scientists (at least the ones I talk to) are realizing that the really exciting prospects for future work involve climbing down from ivory towers and taking fresh, new perspectives.

But there are other reasons to be excited about such a merger, because of the kinds of technology available now. In our lab, we can simulate a built environment using immersive virtual reality; much the same way we can test in real built settings. Imagine being able to design a structure in pixels, and have people visit the virtual structure not only to tell you what they think of it, but also to have access to their brain and body states so that you know exactly how the environment affects them. We can measure many aspects of behaviour: eye gaze, body movement, emotional state, brain waves. It turns design into a new kind of science and I get goosebumps thinking about the possibilities.

Makes me wish I was just starting out rather than being halfway through the race!

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Colin Ellard is a professor in the psychology department at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He has been conducting research and writing about the psychology of spatial perception for the last 25 years. Check out Colin’s blog here.

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