Prospect and Refuge in Web Design

A while back I read Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own  (which I highly recommend) in which he describes the process, from conception to completion, of designing and building a shelter in his backyard.  Guiding the design of the structure is the concept of prospect and refuge.  The basic idea is that humans generally feel most comfortable in places that offer both these two things.  We have evolved to be attracted to places that offer good views of our surroundings, usually places that are raised up, to offer better views of the surrounding landscape.  This would offer advantages such as being able to see approaching threats (predators, hostile animals/humans) and potential sources of food/water/useful materials.  But also important is the idea of refuge.  We need to feel that we have some potection from the elements, or threats like those predators or hostile parties.  We like to know that we can hide and be protected when we need to, but still be able to see what’s out there.

Good architectural designs should offer both of these to its occupants.  What interests me is how other types of designs are incorporating these ideas as well.  The formulation of the P&R theory may have arisen from consideration of physical factors relating to survival, but prospect and refuge aren’t actually physical states, they’re feelings, or ideas.  I think that our brains would seek these out on the web as well.  There’s certainly a built in sense of prospect and refuge when using the web due to the fact that nothing is actually going to come out of our device’s screen and hurt us immediately, and that we can access a wealth of information through our screens.  But as we immerse ourselves more deeply in the virtual world, and we become more attuned to the risks (social, professional, financial) of existing and interacting in these spaces, I think we’ll come to value designs that create senses of refuge as well as prospect.

Good web designs should (and may already, I intend to look into designs and find examples) create these feelings.  Of particular interest to me is how they could be used in the designs of social networking sites.  By using these sites, we are putting ourselves at risk as we put information about ourselves on the web and make ourselves vulnerable.  If designers can find visual ways to create senses of refuge or prospect, sites could be designed and information organized in extremely intuitive ways.  Imagine being able to tell when information is being shared publicly or when it’s being kept private intuitively, just by how the site you’re using is designed, rather than having to keep track mentally of what all your privacy settings are.

I’ve been reading about how changes in hue can create senses of depth.  These techniques, along with loads of others, could be used to create effects of depth that could mimic physical environments offering both prospect and refuge.  An (admittedly too literal) example would be something where private content is placed on a frame that seems to pop out at the viewer, reading as foreground, while another frame that recedes (reading like a window) contains access to material from the outside.

Of course some sites might want to make privacy issues intentionally unclear, for fear of people wanting to keep their information private, while the sites need personal information to be able to target ads more effectively.


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