Does Design Education Teach Students to See in a New Way? An Empirical Study Using Eye Tracking Technology

Presented by: Hasti Mirkia, Mark S.C. Nelson

Question or theory being explored This study explores a fundamental precept of interior design education: that design students are being taught to see in a new way. Design educators often believe this to be true, but lack data that would support their belief; academic discussions often turn on matters of taste and intangibles that might be difficult to tie down. While in the past it has been difficult or impossible to test this in an empirical way, new advances in neuroscience have made this study possible. If it can be shown that design students measurably differ from non-design students in the way that they pay attention to and focus on building elements within an illustration, it can be inferred that design students have learned to see in a new way. The outcome of this study can be used to inform decisions about design education. The framework of exploration In this study, an eye tracker (Fig. 1) recorded the eye movements of thirty participants while they each looked at 58 architectural illustrations evenly divided between two categories: awarded and non-awarded (The American Society of Architectural Perspectivists, 1996). It was theorized that the awarded illustrations had been chosen partly because of the way they presented complex information, and that design students would read that information in a different way than the non-design students. The study was structured around the ability to record the eye’s target while a subject views a series of images. While the eye moves as many as 20 times per second (Shepherd, 1986), the typical targeted eye focus for this study was 3 to 4 targets per second, with each image displayed for seven seconds. When multiple subjects targeted the same spot on an image, a strong “heatmap” resulted, showing consistency of attention. The hypothesis was that the difference between the visual attention of design students and non-design students would be higher when looking at the awarded architectural illustrations in comparison with the non-awarded illustrations. The cognitive process of visual attention is driven by the process of eye movement target selection (Schütz et al., 2011). In this study, the heatmaps of fixation points on each image is represented as a probability distribution that describes the likelihood of fixating on a target within an image. Figure 2 illustrates the process of building the probability distributions constructed from the fixation points of the design students and non-design students. The consistency of the eye movements of the design-students and non-designs students on the images is measured by Kullback-Liebler Divergence (KLD) (Fig. 3). KLD is a method to measure the difference between the two probability distributions (Riche et al., 2013). Figure 4 illustrates the probability distribution among awarded and non-awarded architectural illustrations, along with four examples of the highest and the lowest dissimilarity between the heatmaps. Conclusion Results showed a significant difference between the visual attention of the two populations of design and non-design students (M = 0.84, SD = 0.26) while they were looking at the awarded architectural illustrations as opposed to the non-awarded illustrations (baward = -0.19, t(54) = -2.89, p = 0.005) (Fig. 5). Therefore, this tends to support the hypothesis, and examining individual heatmaps showed that the design-students paid more visual attention to architectural details while looking at awarded illustrations in comparison with the non-design students. The methodology developed for this study can be applied to a whole host of similar studies about design education. In particular, we recommend a future longitudinal study that examines design education’s effect on eye movement consistency. This would measure the consistency of freshmen eye movements at the beginning of their program and compare that with measurements over the course of each design student’s academic course of study.


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