Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated

Universal Principles of Design: Baby-Face Bias, Biophilia Effect, Cathedral Effect and Chunking

Excerpted from Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated (Rockport Publishers)

By William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler

Baby-Face Bias

A tendency to see people and things with baby-faced features as more naïve, helpless, and honest than those with mature features.

People and things with round features, large eyes, small noses, high foreheads, short chins, and relatively lighter skin and hair are perceived as babylike and, as a result, as having babylike personality attributes: naiveté, helplessness, honesty, and innocence. The bias is found across all age ranges, cultures, and many mammalian species.1

The degree to which people are influenced by the baby-face bias is evident in how babies are treated by adults. For example, babies with weak baby-face features receive less positive attention from adults and are rated as less likable, less attractive, and less fun to be with than babies with strong baby-face features. Large, round heads and eyes appear to be the strongest of the facial cues contributing to this bias. For example, premature babies often lack these key baby-face features (e.g., their eyes are closed, and their heads are less round) and are rated by adults as less desirable to care for or be around. A potentially related phenomenon is the rate of child abuse for premature babies, which is approximately 300 percent greater than for normal-term babies.2

Baby-faced adults are subject to a similar biased. However, unlike with children, there are liabilities to being a baby-faced adult. Baby-faced adults appearing in commercials are effective when their role involves innocence and honesty, such as a personal testimonial for a product, but ineffective when their role involves speaking authoritatively about a topic, such as a doctor asserting the benefit of a product. Baby-faced adults are perceived as simple and naïve, and have difficulty being taken seriously in situations where expertise or confrontation is required. In legal proceedings, baby-faced adults are more likely to be found innocent when the alleged crime involves an intentional act, but are more likely to be found guilty when the alleged crime involves a negligent act. It is apparently more believable that a baby-faced person would do wrong accidentally than purposefully. Interestingly, when a baby-faced defendant pleads guilty, they receive harsher sentences than mature-faced defendants—it seems the contrast between the expectation of innocence and the conclusion of guilt evokes a harsher reaction than when the expectation and the conclusion align.

Consider the baby-face bias in the design of characters or products when facial attributes are prominent (e.g., cartoon characters for children). Characters of this type can be made more appealing by exaggerating the various neonatal features (e.g., larger, rounder eyes). In marketing and advertising, use mature-faced people when conveying expertise and authority; use baby-faced people when conveying testimonial information and submissiveness.

1 The seminal work on the baby-face bias is “Ganzheit und Teil in der tierischen und menschlichen Gemeinschaft” [Part and Parcel in Animal and Human Societies] by Konrad Lorenz, Studium Generale, 1950, vol. 3(9).

2 See Reading Faces: Window to the Soul by Leslie A. Zebraowitz, Westview Press, 1998. There are many other factors that could account for this statistic. For example, the level of care and frequency of crying in premature babies is significantly higher than for normalterm babies, which could contribute to the stress of the caregiver.

Baby-face characteristics include round features, large eyes, small noses, high foreheads, and short chins. Superneonatal and supermature features are usually only found in cartoon characters and mythic creatures. Baby-face features correlate with perceptions of helplessness and innocence, whereas mature features correlate with perceptions of knowledge and authority.

Biophilia Effect

Environments rich in nature views and imagery reduce stress and enhance focus and concentration.1

Poets and philosophers have long held that exposure to natural environments produces restorative benefits. In the past few decades, this claim has been tested empirically and, indeed, it does appear that exposure to nature confers benefits emotionally, cognitively, and physically.2

For example, in a longitudinal study following seven- to twelve-year-olds through housing relocation, children who experienced the greatest increase in nature views from their windows made the greatest gains in standard tests of attention (potential confounding variables such as differences in home quality were controlled).3 A comparable effect was observed with college students based on the nature views from their dorm windows. Studies that examined the effects of gardening, backpacking, and exposure to nature pictures versus urban pictures corroborate the effect. One interesting finding is that the effect does not seem to require real plants in the environment, but mere imagery—window views, posters on the wall, and so forth seem to suffice.4

Although some non-natural environments may confer similar benefits, nature scenes appear to be the most reliable and consistent source for the general population. Why should nature imagery be more restorative and conducive to concentration than, for example, urban imagery? The effect is believed to result from the differential manner in which the prefrontal cortex processes nature imagery versus urban imagery. However, given that photographs of nature versus urban environments are sufficient to trigger the effect, it is likely that the biophilia effect is more deeply rooted in the brain than the prefrontal cortex—perhaps an innate bias for greenery evolved in early humans because it conferred a selective advantage, a bias likely related to the savanna preference.

Consider the biophilia effect in the design of all environments, but in particular, environments in which learning, healing, and concentration are paramount. Although nature imagery seems to suffice in lieu of real nature exposure, the latter should be favored when possible as it is more likely to produce a strong generalizable effect. Though the amount of nature imagery required to maximize the effect is not fully understood, architectural classics such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House suggest that more nature in the environment is generally better.

1 The term biophilia effect is based on the biophilia hypothesis first proposed by Erich Fromm and popularized by Edward Wilson. See, for example, The Biophilia Hypothesis, by Stephen Kellert and Edward Wilson (Eds.), Island Press, 1995.

2 The seminal work on the biophilia effect is Psychology: The Briefer Course by William James, Holt, 1892. The seminal empirical work on the effect is Cognition and Environment: Functioning in an Uncertain World by Stephen Kaplan and Rachel Kaplan, Praeger Press, 1982.

3At Home with Nature: Effects of ‘Greenness’ on Children’s Cognitive Functioning” by Nancy Wells, Environment and Behavior, 2000, vol. 32(6).

4The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework” by Stephen Kaplan, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1995, vol. 15, p. 169–182.

Before-and-after proposal for a central hallway redesign in a leading U.S. hospital based on the biophilia effect. The installation, titled “Bamboo Forest,” employs vivid high-resolution imagery and nature sounds to greet and comfort patients as they move from the lobby to their destination. The redesigned hallway serves as a memorable landmark assisting wayfinding, an inspiring passageway that is harmonious with life and healing, and a visible expression of the hospital’s commitment to patient comfort and quality of experience.

Cathedral Effect

A relationship between the perceived height of a ceiling and cognition. High ceilings promote abstract thinking and creativity. Low ceilings promote concrete and detail-oriented thinking.

It is widely accepted that people prefer high ceilings to low ceilings. Lesser known, however, is that ceiling height can influence how people approach problem solving. Depending on the nature of the problem, ceiling height can either undermine or enhance problem-solving performance.

Conspicuous ceiling height—that is, noticeably low or noticeably high ceilings—promotes different types of cognition, with high ceilings promoting abstract thinking and creativity and low ceilings promoting concrete and detail-oriented thinking. No effect is observed if the ceiling height goes unnoticed. In self-report measures, people predictably rated their general affect as “freer” in high-ceilinged rooms versus “confined” in low-ceilinged rooms. In word tasks, subjects were able to solve anagram problems more efficiently when the anagram aligned with ceiling height. For example, subjects in a high-ceilinged room could solve freedom-related anagrams (e.g., “liberation”) faster than those in a low-ceilinged room, but were slower to solve confinement-related anagrams (e.g., “restrained”) than those in the low-ceilinged room. A more practical example is an experiment in which two groups were asked to conduct product evaluations, one group in a high-ceilinged room and one in a low-ceilinged room. The group in the highceilinged room tended to focus on general product characteristics, whereas the group in the low-ceilinged room tended to focus on specific features. One hypothesis is that this effect is due to priming—the stimulation of certain concepts in memory to promote and enhance cognition regarding related concepts. With the cathedral effect, high ceilings prime “freedom” and related concepts and low ceilings prime “confinement” and related concepts.

Consider the cathedral effect in the design of work and retail environments. For tasks that require creativity and out-of-the-box thinking (e.g., research and development) favor large rooms with high ceilings. For tasks that require detail-oriented work (e.g., surgical operating room) favor smaller rooms with lower ceilings. In retail environments, favor spaces with high ceilings when consumer choice requires imagination (e.g., home remodeling store) and spaces with lower ceilings for more task-oriented shopping (e.g., convenience store). Favor high ceilings to extend the time in which visitors remain on site (e.g., casino) and low ceilings to minimize loitering (e.g., fast food restaurant).

1 The seminal work on the cathedral effect is “The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use” by Joan Meyers-Levy and Rui (Juliet) Zhu, Journal of Consumer Research, August 2007.

The ability to focus and perform detail-oriented work is enhanced by environments with low ceilings. The ability to perform more creative work is enhanced by environments with high ceilings. A related effect pertains to visual perspective: worm’s-eye views (looking upward) evoke cognition and associations similar to high ceilings, whereas bird’s-eye views (looking downward) evoke cognition and associations similar to low ceilings.


A technique of combining many units of information into a limited number of units or chunks, so that the information is easier to process and remember.

The term chunk refers to a unit of information in short-term memory—a string of letters, a word, or a series of numbers. The technique of chunking seeks to accommodate short-term memory limits by formatting information into a small number of units. The maximum number of chunks that can be efficiently processed by short-term memory is four, plus or minus one. For example, most people can remember a list of five words for 30 seconds, but few can remember a list of ten words for 30 seconds. By breaking the list of ten words into multiple, smaller chunks (e.g., two groups of three words, and one group of four words), recall performance is essentially equivalent to the single list of five words.1

Chunking is often applied as a general technique to simplify designs. This is a potential misapplication of the principle. The limits specified by this principle deal specifically with tasks involving memory. For example, it is unnecessary and counterproductive to restrict the number of dictionary entries on a page to four or five. Reference-related tasks consist primarily of scanning for a particular item; chunking in this case would dramatically increase the scan time and effort, and yield no benefits.

Chunk information when people are required to recall and retain information, or when information is used for problem solving. Do not chunk information that is to be searched or scanned. In environments where noise or stress can interfere with concentration, consider chunking critical display information in anticipation of diminished short-term memory capacity. Use the contemporary estimate of 4 ± 1 chunks when applying this technique.

1 The seminal work on short-term memory limits is “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” by George Miller, The Psychological Review, 1956, vol. 63, p. 81–97. As made evident by the title of Miller’s paper, his original estimate for short-term memory capacity was 7± 2 chunks.

2 A readable contemporary reference is Human Memory: Theory and Practice by Alan Baddeley, Allyn & Bacon, 1997. Regarding short-term memory limits, see, for example, “The Magical Number Four in Short-Term Memory: A Reconsideration of Mental Storage Capacity” by Nelson Cowan, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2001, vol. 24, p. 87–114.

Familiar words are easier to remember and chunk together than unfamiliar words. Of the two lists, list 1 is easier to recall.

Large strings of numbers are difficult to recall. Chunking large strings of numbers into multiple, smaller strings can help. Most people can remember their Social Security number and frequently called phone numbers.

This e-learning course by Kaplan EduNeering makes excellent use of chunking. Note that the number of content topics (left gray panel) observes the appropriate limits, as do the information chunks on the topics themselves. Overview and Challenge are not counted because they contain organizing information and quizzes only.

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Excerpted from Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler. Copyright © 2010. Used with permission of Rockport Publishers.