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An Evaluation of Spatial Cognitions Impact on Product Design By Micah Fenner

85-395: Applications of Cognitive Science April 25, 2013

Fenner 2 Product design is a field that has become rapidly more important over the last several decades. As technological advances slow, major differences between products are increasingly on the design end of things rather than the technological end. Design is in essence a manner of perceptual communication and thus it stands to reason that research relating to cognitive processing, and more specifically spatial cognition, should have some bearing on the field of industrial design. In this paper, I will first explore research in the field of spatial cognition. Then I will lay out some basic of principles of design and draw connections between these principles and how they relate to the processes of spatial cognition. Then, I will use the products of Apple, Inc. and BMW as case studies and evaluate their approach to design as it relates to spatial cognition. Lastly, I will explore existing applications of spatial cognition in design and propose some flaws within them. Spatial Cognition Spatial cognition is the processing of spatial information by the brain. In more specific terms, this involves understanding the spatial relationships between items in the visual field and deriving information and meaning from those relationships. This process is essential to object recognition as well as feature processing. In fact, the processes involved in spatial cognition actually underlie much of our perception of the world. According to David R. Olson and Ellen Bialystok ,we as humans derive an immense amount of meaning from spatial relationships and structures that can range from symbol systems to distances and landmarks. Though these concepts are somewhat abstract, our brains are in fact hard-wired to recognize certain features and bind them to objects or places. Despite these functional areas of the brain being located in anatomically distinct places, Taylor, Moss, Stamatakis, and Tyler conducted an fMRI study which revealed that the perirhinal cortex actually functions as a binding agent which not only

Fenner 3 links perceptual features to each other, but also binds them in memory to the object. Thus the edges processed initially in the primary visual cortex are combined with the more complex visual features that require more advanced processing. This explains how visual details are associated with objects, but leaves the question concerning how meaning is associated with objects unanswered. Olson and Bialystok claim that in fact, this association does in fact occur during the process of perception. They go on to intimate that this meaning exists in some form that is distinct from structural descriptions, but that the meaning in fact influences our perception and understanding of objects just as much as our visual systems do. This is reflected in research concerning recognition of rotated shapes as compared to recognition of line drawings of familiar objects that have been rotated. This research indicates that familiarity with the object and hence an understanding of its meaning as opposed to a meaningless asymmetrical shape decreases the recognition response time which implies a correlation between meaning and object recognition. This correlation complicates prior understandings of the process of object recognition as many involved in this field believe that this process is entirely bottom up: beginning in the basic visual system and working its way up through the ventral areas. However, recent research conducted at the Harvard Medical School indicates that low spatial frequencies in an image can in fact facilitate top-down visual recognition beginning in the orbitofrontal cortex. Low spatial frequencies are properties that occur in the visual field when perceiving global information about objects such as proportions and orientation. If this research holds true, then it stands to reason that properties that hold such low spatial frequencies are extremely important in the object recognition process.

Fenner 4 In summary, spatial cognition is an extremely wide-ranging field that has many areas applicable to product design. Of these fields, feature processing and binding and their effects on object recognition carry the most weight because they directly impact the meaning that we associate with products which in turn affects our purchasing decisions. Research in these fields leads to the conclusion that meaning is derived from visual perception in addition to influencing it and that properties such as proportions and object orientation are in fact perceived and processed without requiring large amounts of visual detail. By linking these conclusions with established design principles, we can see why certain principles are extremely important in designing effective products and apply these conclusions to the design process in order to design more communicative and effective products.

Design Principles Dieter Rams, the German industrial designer, became famous during his time working at the consumer electronics company, Braun, for the simplicity, yet extreme functionality of the products he designed. Towards the end of his life, he was able to distill his design ethos down into the Ten Principles of Good Design. They are as follows: Good design is innovative, good design makes a product useful, good design is aesthetic, good design makes a product understandable, good design is honest, good design is unobtrusive, good design is long lasting, good design is thorough down to the last detail, good design is environmentally friendly, and good design is as little design as possible. Of these principles, there are several that pertain to the spatial cognition research discussed earlier including making a product understandable, and being honest, unobtrusive and minimalistic.

Fenner 5 Though Rams was by no means educated in psychology, these principles do indeed reflect the research in spatial cognition shown above. For example, designing a product to be understandable and honest relates directly to the perceptual systems influence on meaning. If meaning cannot be derived from the spatial structure of a product, or conversely if the user derives a meaning or use for the product that isnt actually there, that is an indication of bad design and results in user confusion. What follows from this are the principles of minimalistic and unobtrusive design, both of which can lead to clarity in the understanding of a products purpose and its subsequent use. This can be linked to Ockhams razor, or the idea that given a choice between two functionally equivalent objects, it is always better to choose the simplest one. Much has been written about better utilizing cognition in the design process and there are several important design principles that have arisen as a result. Of these, the most important principles have to do with similarity and consistency. For products to be easily understood and recognized, it is in the designers interest to incorporate similar visual features to similar parts of products. This not only creates a visual consistency, but it helps the user to understand functionality of the product in terms of prior knowledge or experience with related products. This also has to do with the psychological phenomenon for users to perform better at recognition tasks than at recall tasks. Thus, an easily recognizable product is much preferable as it is likely more appealing to the user. Finally, products or elements that are similar visually are perceived as being related, which leads to more natural associations between products that appear visually to be similar. Additionally, there are many design principles having to do with proportion such as the golden ratio and rule of thirds. Though these principles make for eye-catching designs, they also speak to the brains ability to process low spatial frequencies without requiring much visual

Fenner 6 data. If products are designed with proportions and other low spatial frequencies in mind, they become more recognizable.

Case Studies There are many companies that have used design influenced by such cognitive principles to great degrees of success. Noted not only for the quality of their products, but also for their distinctive designs, I will be examining BMW and Apple, Inc. as two examples of such companies. Apples senior industrial designer, Jonathan Ive has played a major role in the design of almost all of Apples products since the release of the original iMac in 1998. He is known for his extraordinarily simple designs, which are intended to reflect the simple nature of the products themselves. This is, of course, not purely for aesthetic purposes, but is additionally necessary in order to satisfy the requirements of the user. As such, the technical research and design process becomes intertwined with the physical design process. When looking at Apples products, it is hard not to be drawn in. Not only are their products clean and minimalistic, but the color scheme and shapes are extremely simple, yet they convey the products purpose. They are intended to stand out and they do. Interestingly enough, they stand out in similar ways. If one looks at Apples entire product line: mp3 players, laptops, desktops, and tablets, certain design cues are obvious. Curved corners, black glass on brushed aluminum, circular scroll wheels, and consistent fonts are all features that are shared across the entire product line. This consistency is directly in line with the design principles mentioned before and also hearkens back to the correlation between meaning and spatial relations as the primary difference between the physical forms of these products are the proportions of these

Fenner 7 distinct features. Of course, these features not only increase understanding of meaning but also increase recognition, as many of them are low in spatial frequency. BMW has taken a similar approach to designing their products, albeit over a larger amount of time. Beginning in the 1930s, the classic BMW grille two ovoids with vertical vents have adorned the front of their vehicles. This design cue not only is still in place on all of their cars today, but it has become an icon of the brand. It renders their vehicles immediately distinguishable as BMWs. Another such feature that is distinctive among their vehicles are their headlights. Though their headlight design has not remained constant, it is always consistent within their current product line. Again, this is a prime example of consistency serving as a design choice that enhances associations and meaning between spatial structure and objects. BMWs interior design is also unusually sparse for a luxury car manufacturer, but not due to lack of thought. This design is a result of a drive for simplicity and unobtrusiveness that ideally will reflect the intended use and functionality of the dashboard controls better than any labels or instructions could. Assuming this is true, the sparseness also aids in the accurate bindings between object meaning and spatial structure.

Existing Applications Dr. Robert Kreuzbauer, professor in the department of Business Administration at the University of Illinois has authored several papers on this exact topic in cooperation with various faculty members from the University of Vienna and the University of Arizona. These papers deal with product design perception and cognition as it relates to brand categorization and strength. In these papers, he asserts that subtle design changes can be used to support product line extension strategies such that new products are recognizable. He also develops a framework for the

Fenner 8 processing of product designs and information that can be inferred from such designs. He then uses this framework to construct a concept of brand strength that can be made stronger or more appealing based on certain aesthetic elements. Though his research and basic model is good Kreuzbauer understandably as it is his area of expertise focuses on the business side of this application rather than the implications it has for design and usability.

Conclusions In all, the field of spatial cognition has enormous potential for impact on the field of product design. As it stands right now, there are certain designers and design principles that take advantage of the brains peculiarities and specificities in terms of processing, but most of that is either unintentional or limited. If designers begin to take existing research and knowledge into account when designing products, not only will they end up being more aesthetically pleasing, but also easier to use and more recognizable. This will leads to more enjoyable consumer experiences, higher levels of brand recognition, and a higher design standard. Existing applications of spatial cognition in product design are quite limited, but this field is one that I see expanding rather rapidly in the near future.

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