Posts tagged visual preference surveys

The visual preference survey (VPS) was originally developed as a public consultation tool by urban visionary, Anton Nelessen in the 70s. They’ve remained a ubiquitous tool used within the planning and design fields for evaluating individual components of future built environments. Though originated as an appraisal planning instrument for decision-making, VPS continues today as a participatory design and research tool with valuable applications, with some caveats.

Photo manipulation based survey comparing planting alternatives for a pocket park, conventional vegetation (left side) against xeriscaping (right side). All images:  Cristhian Barajas

We have all seen some form or derivation of these surveys. They use distinct photographs to illustrate and present different proposals, illustrating the options a project can take, while specifying individual design or program elements. Traditionally, there has been a distinction between the conventional approach using non-uniform sets of photographs and photo-manipulated VPS – academically, the latter receiving more praise for their more accurate representations.

Photo manipulation-based VPS are more suitable for academic research exercises, and for projects presenting a narrower spectrum of possibilities. The level of skill they take and the fee-consuming time associated with their production renders them not viable for ordinary practice. But when utilized using common photographs easily collected online, VPS remains a flexible tool offering endless applications, invaluable for projects requiring a component of public engagement.

A photograph-based visual preference survey comparing different types of benches using wood slats in many ways.

How VPS Benefit Projects and the Public

VPS is most valuable when establishing a system of criteria to filter the public’s likes and preferences, and also to shape design decisions operating under a common language between project participants. Factors evaluated may include: materials, colors, shapes, sizes, layouts, styles and functions. Theoretically, the surveys are meant to democratically represent what the stakeholders and users want. However, there are some inherent flaws capable of jeopardizing the public’s objective perception.

Criticisms associated with VPS include their ability to be used as a manipulation tool, alongside their use in engaging in disinformation. Manipulation refers to designers and/or developers who purposely enhance or position design preferences from a favored vantage point over and above the rest of other options. Disinformation refers to biased activity shaped by inaccurately presented options or through the use of higher-quality images to promote favored results.

All photographs are subject to factors like lighting, weather, composition, context, angle, zoom and resolution – each a powerful determinant with the potential to shift the viewer’s reaction toward either a negative or positive rating.

The visual preference survey above does not present consistently sized photographs, strongly favoring those with a higher hierarchy. Similarly, images of some water features may be deemed less appealing due to the captured angle, lighting, or context present.

In the second part of What Are Visual Preference Surveys and Why They Matter, I’ll explore another pitfall related to the use of visual preference surveys, and recommend several do’s and don’ts when utilizing this valuable public assessment tool.