Fractals, Design and Quality of Life

This may be the geekiest post ever on this site.  But it is probably worth reading if you are interested in the effect of physical design on quality of life.  Over at Fast Company’s co.Design blog, architect Lance Hosey writes about some potentially revolutionary research findings.

It starts with the fact that researchers have concluded that, due to thousands of years of human evolution, people prefer to be in the presence of acacia trees, like the one shown here.  This type of natural scene has been shown to be moreacacia relaxing to people than other depictions of nature, such as a densely wooded forest.  But here’s where things get interesting?

The appeal of the acacia in truth may have nothing to do with its being recognized as a tree. Experiments by psychologist James Wise and others used skin conductance techniques to measure anxiety during aptitude tests and found that participants exposed to highly abstract acacia-like images were less stressed than those who saw photographs of thick forest scenes. In other words, simplified diagrams of one kind of tree shape were more successful than realistic representations of another. Three significant revelations result from these findings: first, people respond not just to actual vegetation but also to related imagery; second, the imagery need not be realistic or recognizable as vegetation; third, not all vegetation or plantlike imagery works equally well. The implications for design are enormous. Plenty of research shows that access to natural scenes promotes well-being, but these other studies also suggest that nonrepresentational patterns can have a similar impact. In other words, abstract design can be good for you.

And this is where fractals come in:  “Physicist J. C. Sprott has found that test subjects are invariably drawn to logarithmically produced figures called “strange attractors”–artificial images that look nothing like nature–if they conform to the same geometric characteristics of trees, clouds, and other natural fractals.”  As Wikipedia points out, “Fractals are typically self-similar patterns, where self-similar means they are “the same from near as from far”.  And,  evolutionary  they maybe the things that give us ease when we look at certain natural scenes.  Fascinating stuff that could change the way we look at urban design. The post is here.

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