What Gets the Most Visual Attention in Your Architecture?

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Image Caption: The Pantheon | Image Credit: © Frankix | Dreamstime
Image Caption: The Pantheon | Image Credit: © Frankix | Dreamstime


There are so many details that come together to make a wonderful architectural design; but what gets the most visual attention when someone sees a work of architecture? How does visual attention play into an occupant’s experience? The key is to understand that attention is a gradual process of adaptation where what gets our attention in the first moment may not get our attention moments later. Let me explain…

“Attention dynamically routes relevant information to decision-making areas in the brain and suppresses the surrounding center.” (1)

In other words, we are wired to visually find focal points that help us make decisions in the most efficient manner. In terms of architecture, just think of the many factors that architecture can influence. As architects, we use the notion of a focal point all the time – in terms of function, aesthetics and scalability. Such design issues that make the most use of visual attention are architectural qualities like wayfinding, thresholds, window views, lighting — the list goes on an on.


Any given work of architecture has many decision-making points within it. For this reason, it is good to consider what role focal points (visual attention) will play as they help your occupants to make decisions. Such focal points not only grab an occupant’s attention, but actually guide them on their journey as they travel within architecture, from one moment to the next.



We designers like to use design practices (like framing or symmetry) to create focal points in buildings; yet, we are able to create them in timeless and scale-less manners. How do we accomplish this?

Did you know that the “strength of [our] visual input fluctuates”? (1)

This means that what gets an occupant’s attention one moment will change by the next moment. Have you ever noticed that your visual attention adjusts as you acclimate to a space? For instance, when going indoors after being outside on a sunny day, your eyes need time to adjust once inside. At first, it is difficult to see anything indoors. Everything seems mostly dark; but as time passes, it seems that your eyes adjust to the lighting — you begin to see more and more detail. This is what happens with your occupant’s visual attention. Once an occupant enters a space, they acclimate in stages as they process incoming visual stimuli.



All of this gives way to thinking about how to design an architectural space. A room, or even a threshold, can be designed to make the most out of this understanding of visual attention. For example, when considering where to place the entrance of a room you may want to study what happens when an occupant enters – not just design for after the occupant has acclimated to the space.


Part of every space is the entrance – don’t neglect the importance of the threshold. This is where you may help occupants prepare for the visual stimuli they are about to take in, once inside. If there is no physical threshold, think of how the room’s details, lighting, materials and overall geometries will get their attention as they gain greater focus of the room over time.



The Pantheon in Rome is a wonderful example of how visual attention can be used in architecture. It really makes use of the factors described in this article. This is probably why it is on the cover of the book called Sensory Design

I must mention that this book is a wonderful way to learn more about the interconnections between the senses and architecture. I highly recommend it if you are interested in these topics. It goes beyond just the visual senses and gives an in depth explanation of how humans experience architecture. I know you will enjoy it…Here is the link: Sensory Design



(1) News Release — Visual Attention: How the Brain Makes the Most of the Visible World. The Salk Institute. March 27, 2009.

About the author

Maria Lorena Lehman

Maria Lorena Lehman is a visionary artist, designer, and author focusing on links between environmental design, science, emerging technologies, and human potential. Lehman is founder of MLL Atelier, an art-based architectural design research practice. Maria Lorena Lehman is author of the award-winning book entitled, Adaptive Sensory Environments. She is recipient of the Harvard University Digital Design Prize for the "most creative use of digital media in relation to the design professions". Lehman also creates sculptures and paintings described as "visual poetry of motion that is a new inspiration" by Daniel Smith, the company that creates watercolors for artists worldwide. Maria Lorena Lehman holds the degrees of Master in Design with Distinction from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and a Bachelor of Architecture, Cum Laude, from Virginia Tech. She is internationally published and in numerous periodicals, including The Architect's Journal, Esquisses Magazine, Architect Magazine and Forbes.