Exploring our common sociobiological architecture for pathways to near-Universal Design
Master's Thesis
RCA • 2021
Remote, COVID-19 Project ⚠️
Speculative & 3D User Research • Experience & Communication Design

The way we design and interact with industrial products today cannot be sustained.

The stats paint a dire picture:

  • The fashion industry contributes 10% of yearly carbon emissions1.
  • Buildings gobble up 36% of global energy use2.
  • An astounding ~80% of plastic waste ends up either in landfills or pollutes the natural environment3.

This is an emergency and we must completely rethink how we design artefacts and the built environment.

One key challenge is that even beyond the rapid evolution of technology, many products become victims of perceived obsolescence: losing their appeal or functionality not because of technological limitations, but because they are no longer 'trendy' or able to match consumer preferences.

How can we optimise what we produce to increase the effectiveness and longevity of our designs?

Quintessential experiences have led to similar functional specialisations in our brains and common perceptual, cognitive and behavioural responses.

These experiences therefore provide stimuli which can influence people in predictable ways, even across different cultures.

Stimuli like these — 'biophorms' — could be used as design patterns for the near-universal design of interactions, behaviours and experiences.

Furthermore, we might be able to use biophorms' 'supernormal', hyperfunctional qualities to make our designs more resistant to boredom and change.

Through dialogue with artists, designers, psychologists and neuroscientists, this experimental and highly exploratory research project outlined a tentative manifesto for the application of biophorms to reduce the redundancy and waste of 'trendy' mass produced products, helping us connect to and become closer to our (shared) nature.

Are there (near-)universal design principles which can make design more inclusive and sustainable?

Can we uncover ‘common sense’ design patterns which remain functional across individuals and over time?

Key Output
The Cognitive Science of Experience
Cognitive Science

A tentative model of our sensory-perceptual system and corresponding behaviour

Synthesises 3 prominent theories to model the feedback loop between our sensory-perceptual architecture and behaviour.

  1. Predictive Coding (Friston & Kiebel, 2009)
    Our brain constantly generates predictions about sensory input based on prior knowledge. When there is a mismatch between expectations and sensory input (a 'prediction error'), the brain adjusts its internal model to minimise the error.
  2. The Perception-Action Cycle (Gibson, 1979; Koechlin et al., 2003)
    The continuous loop between perception and action, where perception guides our actions and actions further inform our perception.
  3. Multisensory Integration (see Spence, 2018)
    Our brains integrate information from different sensory modalities to create a coherent, unified and holistic perception of the world.

Highlights the expectation-driven, context-bound and ecological nature of user interactions

This model proposes that perception and behaviour is dependent on the expectations and therefore goals and intentions of a person within their context of use.

  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, if you want to influence your audience in predictable ways, look to their past experiences.
  • Try to make experiences multi-sensory and holistically coherent (or, depending on the desired effect, purposefully discordant) with their prior experience and expectations.
An ecological model of the brain-body-environment relationship
A model of the brain-body-environment relationship or 'umwelt'
The lifetime and evolutionary feedback of behaviour upon perception and emergent experience (adapted with additional evolutionary perspective from Hinton, 2010).

Evolutionary and lifetime experience feeds into our perceptual models

This integrative view of our interactions with the environment highlights the interplay of:

  • A slower, evolutionary loop
    Formed over our common ancestral history, which has led to similar genetic pathways and our common sensory-perceptual proto-architecture.
  • A faster, lifetime loop
    Formed through social as well as more unique, personal learning, which fine-tunes our expectations and therefore perception of the world.
The Neuroscience of Near-Universal, Highly Specialised Expectations
Cognitive Neuroscience

Bits of our brains find similar things important

Neuroscientific research has uncovered that certain areas of the visual cortex are specifically attuned to certain categories of stimuli that have key ecological significance.

Though it is important to recognise that our brains are highly complex and interconnected, the basic structure and function of these areas are remarkably similar across the human population.

This suggests they are to a certain extent genetically hardwired and spontaneously organise across individuals through our common interactions with the environment.

Our brains seem highly attuned to particular types of stimulus

Common experiences that are particularly significant over our evolutionary and social lives seems to have led to highly-specialised areas of the brain — and these are generalisable across humans (see Zeki & Chén, 2019; Bignardi, Ishizu & Zeki, 2020).

Some responses are clearly socially ingrained (e.g. to text), whilst others could possibly be evolved and inherited (e.g. to faces or gestures).

More of these specialised responses are likely to be revealed with time. For example, recent evidence has discovered regions of the visual cortex with high selectivity for food (Jain et al., 2023).

Faces as a Biophorm Test Case
Evolutionary Psychology

Faces as a plausible biophorm

As social beings, we are dependent on other humans for survival. This is especially true during our early development; where we cannot survive without social care.

This seems to have not only led to a brain area which is specialised for faces (the FFA1), but also to highly attuned responses.

Holistic, 'gestalt' perception

We have developed highly attuned expectations about what faces look like.

When we view these faces the right way up, they're jarring because they disrupt those precise expectations.

However, when the faces are upside down, our expectations are less finely attuned and precise. As a result, it's harder to perceive the distorted features and they do not cause the same 'visual shock'.

What does this suggest about perception?
  • Our prior experience and therefore predictions influence what we perceive.
  • We perceive things as a whole rather than built up from their individual parts.
  • Faces have highly specialised responses, suggesting biophormic qualities.
Biophorms as Stimuli with Special Significance to the Brain

The visual shock of violated biophorms

Violating our highly specialised, biophormic expectations about the world (like we have for faces or body parts) seems to lead to a consistent 'visual shock' in the brain (see Zeki & Ishizu, 2013).

Violating biophorms might lead to durable, predictable responses in our brains

Further studies into this phenomenon (Chen & Zeki, 2011) suggest that this visual shock to violated body parts not only persists but actually increases over repeated exposure.

In contrast, distorting things which are less significant parts of everyday experience (or possibly survival) — like chairs and aeroplanes — leads to a relatively short-lived shock which diminishes with repeat exposure.

This provides tantalising, though currently equivocal, evidence for the potential to use biophorms as tools to predictably and continuously influence our feelings and behaviours.

Biophorms as Potentially Hyperfunctional Behavioural Stimuli
The greylag goose’s ‘Fixed Action Pattern’
Rolling stimuli which resemble eggs into its nest.

Could biophorms lead to fixed or highly predictable action patterns?

There are examples across the animal kingdom of highly instinctual responses to different stimuli.

  • The greylag goose, for example, will automatically start to roll objects which resemble its eggs back into the nest; continuing the behaviour even if the egg is removed (Lorenz & Tinbergen, 1938).

And might they be ‘supernormal stimuli’?

Sometimes these instinctive responses can be hijacked by stimuli that exaggerate those features.

  • These jewel beetles, for example, have misinterpreted a beer bottle as a particularly formidable mating partner (see Gwynne and Rentz, 1983).
Possible Biophorms in Society Today
Evolutionary Psychology and Cross-cultural Anthropology
Possible visual biophorms
Sexually-suggestive advertising (Schrader, 1921; Calvin Klein, 2015)
‘Babyfaced’ stimuli (Miesler et al., 2011)
Mascots and vibrant colours (Cukrov, 2015)

Visual Biophorms

  • Sexually-suggestive Advertising and Porn
    Using exaggerated physical features to grab attention and heighten arousal.
  • The 'Kinderschema'
    Using baby-like facial features to tap into our nurturing instinct, fostering trust and connection.
  • Bright, Vibrant Colours
    Might appeal to cues for ripeness in nutrient-rich fruit and vegetables to grab attention and stimulate pleasure.
  • Biophilia
    Using our need to interact with nature to provide pleasure and support wellbeing, e.g. our preference for lush, fertile plants and sheltered landscapes that imply plentiful resources and refuge.
  • The 'Magpie Effect'
    Using our attraction to shiny, sparkling or glossy objects (which could be linked to our need for fresh water) to direct attention and stimulate desire.

Other Biophorms

  • Social Media and 'Likes'
    Exploiting our desire for social approval and connection.
  • Gamification and Randomised Rewards
    • Providing immediate feedback e.g. sound or visual effects which positively reinforce behaviours.
    • Using intermittent, sporadic and variable reward programmes to stimulate a sense of anticipation and therefore repetitive behaviour.
  • Fast Food
    Exploits our preferences for flavours like salt, sugar and fat which implied high energy content over our evolutionary history.
Investigating Biophorms
Evolutionary and Experimental Psychology

How can we begin to test potential biophorms?

Can we identify if they do indeed translate to predictable behaviours?

The common patterns of brain activity suggest a certain predictable influence on our thoughts and feelings.

Does this extend to our behaviours? Or does individual, cultural or contextual experience make any influence redundant in terms of behavioural outcomes?

Proof-of-concept, biophorm investigation tool
Investigating interactions to visual stimuli in 3D space under conditions which allow a high degree of control as well as improved ecological-validity.

Primary research methodology

The embodied nature of experience and intertwining of our sensory, perceptual and behavioural pathways underpins the motivation to:

  • Investigate user experiences under 'ecologically-valid' conditions which approach the realistic, multi-sensory simulation of real-world user context, intentions and expectations.
  • Record implicit behavioural responses rather than relying on explicit, self-reported, more cognitive evaluations alone. Self-reports have been found to only moderately correlate with actual behaviours1. They are susceptible to reporting biases, and/or often reflect attitudes, values or preferences more than actual behaviour see 2, 3.

The complex interplay between (1) Evolutionary Pressures, (2) Social Conditioning and (3) Individual Differences highlights the necessity of:

  • A suitably large-scale technique to gather data across diverse cultural contexts, sufficient for us to unravel if particular stimuli do indeed elicit common responses across different user segments.

This basic research probe investigates how we could better investigate the behavioural affordances of visual stimuli, under controlled conditions and using a 3D environment that allows us to approach the simulation of real-world user context.


This exploratory, theoretical and experimental interdisciplinary research project probed a novel approach to design, called 'biophormic design'. Biophorms are stimuli which afford thoughts, feelings and behaviours which are near-universal due to our common sociobiology. If they do indeed exist and can be understood, they could help us create intuitive, timeless products and environments.

This exploration raised a number of questions:

  1. Can we design for our instincts and inclinations, our deepest biological and social ‘taste’, mitigating the wastefulness of trends?
  2. Can this perspective help us uncover design patterns that will allow us to develop effective, timeless products?
  3. Would this be a homogenising, dull influence on industrial design, or one that allows greater quality and delight?

Towards Universal, Timeless Design

Triangulating evidence across several different disciplines, experimental perspectives and paradigms (including ethology, psychology, neuroscience and anthropology), I used interdisciplinary desk research to identify a range of putative biophorms — perceptual specialisations that seem likely to be either evolved or prototypical in their experience across cultures.

This evidence encourages a tentative hypothesis that certain stimuli are likely to stimulate consistent feelings and behaviours across users due to their highly typical experience across different social settings, and perhaps even over our common evolutionary history.

Focussing on visual perception, the desk research uncovered a range of credible psychological triggers and behavioural affordances worthy of further testing. For example, brightly coloured berry/fruit textures stimulating attention and hunger; symmetrical, attractive faces directing our attention and stimulating a sense of beauty; or sexually-suggestive advertising capturing our attention and driving desire or lust.

  • These evolved or strongly conditioned responses to stimuli could therefore provide an avenue for intuitive design across cultures, and sometimes even over different species.
  • Evidence suggests that some of these stimuli may also be 'supernormal': hyper-functional behavioural triggers which resist habituation and endure over time. These supernormal stimuli therefore represent a possible route to mitigating the challenge of perceived obsolescence (loss of perceived usefulness or desirability).

Towards Realistic Interaction Research

Through an analysis of current experimental techniques, a novel investigative technique was developed which probes the possibilities of user research using mixed reality (XR).

XR techniques provide a novel approach to user research, with a number of advantages:

  • Remote research: helping to increase the potential research scale and participant diversity.
  • Recording implicit (rather than reported) behavioural responses.
  • Control over the participant environment: allowing consistency across participants and over repeat testing.
  • The creation of more realistic (or 'ecologically-valid') environments where precise tweaks can be made to the environment in order to delineate cause-and-effect relationships between particular stimulus changes and their associated behavioural affordances.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 the planned exhibition and VR experiences were restricted to online, remote forms.


Building a Discursive Space

By blending design research with insights from evolutionary psychology, cognitive science and neurobiology, a fresh perspective is provided into the research of affordances and user interactions.

This study serves as a starting point, bringing some of the topic’s evidence and conceptual frameworks into light and providing a springboard for further conversation.

As it is today, our instincts are often being exploited and used by design patterns. For example, companies like Amazon can A/B test a huge number of webpage configurations — letting them tap into our fundamental intuitions and direct our attention. This type of research can exploit our intuitions or encoded heuristics with no understanding of the underlying mechanisms.

In the future, where we live in an even more 'mixed' reality through our wearables, the capacity to influence us and uncover those underlying mechanisms will only grow. It will be useful to understand biophorms before they are exploited without genuine understanding, working out how to regulate them and use them for good.

By delving deeper into our common sociobiology, and developing improved methods to explore participants' responses to stimuli in ecologically-valid environments, we could create a new paradigm for design that is more human-centred and possibly even 'more-than-human'-centred.

Want to find out more?
After Effects
Systems Thinking
Interdisciplinary Research
Visual Communication
Workshop Design + Facilitation
Algy Falconer
Speculative Interdisciplinary Research & Experience Design

With many thanks to Semir Zeki, Chris McManus and Laura Ferrarello for their inspiration, critique and advice.

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