According to academic Don Norman, there are three emotional levels which people use to appreciate design: visceral, behavioural, and reflective. His notions are broad, referring to any kind of designed product, but they apply equally to architecture. And not just city-defining skyscrapers or centrepiece museums. By combining these three elements in design we can create offices, homes, and extensions to those homes that are useful, aesthetically pleasing and impressive. The question is how to do so.
The Interaction Design Foundation boiled down the concept:
“The visceral level of design refers to the first impression of a design, both in terms of how the user perceives the product and how it makes the user feel. The behavioural level refers to the experience of the product in use. We often think of this level when we think of user experience. The reflective level refers to the user’s reflections about the product, both before, during, and after use. The three levels all combine to form the entire product experience.”
When we review a design before beginning construction (as well as during construction), our ambition must be to view these three levels as symbiotic. To have one, or even two, of these levels is not going to be enough. Imagine for a moment that an extension has been to a client’s home. It might appeal to a visceral reaction, the extension looks appealing, and its appearance is unique, at least in the eye of the beholder if not in reality. Secondly, it may function on a behavioural level too. That is, the extension performs its function admirably. However, without connecting the design to a reflective level, the client will never fall in love with what you’ve built.
People expect a certain adherence to these three levels, without even realising it. To continue using the example of an extension, if it does not function well then not only will the client be unhappy, but they will likely review it poorly. And appearance matters, certainly.
But it is arguably the reflective level that needs to be appealed to above all when it comes to people’s homes. This is because it is a reflection on themselves. The client should feel that a design says something about them that they like. Don Norman puts it best:
“Reflective design is about the meaning of things. It’s about message: what does using this product say about you? It’s where your self-image is. It depends on your age, background, culture. My juicer is not meant to squeeze lemons, it is meant to start conversations. But I don’t use it for squeezing lemons.”
A talented architect can draw up something visually appealing, and working in conjunction with a builder can produce something that works well and does the job it’s supposed to. However, it is only be discussing the design – at length – with the client that the reflective can be achieved. And it doesn’t always mean taking the client at their word. It’s a question of determining what the client aspires to, and what their idea of enviable is. The architect can then take that idea, that white-hot core of who the client aspires to be and present it to them in the form of a design.