Lecture Recap :: Dak Kopec

Photo by Ian Hester

By Anastasia Lyons, BDS Candidate

A recent lecture titled "Environmental Psychology and Design," part of the Fall 2013 Student Lecture Series, introduced students to a new faculty member at the BAC: Dak Kopec is the appointed Director of Design and Human Health, a newly created Master of Design Studies degree program which will begin accepting its first applicants in Fall 2014.

Many BAC students were eager to meet him and get a taste of what this new program might be like. The lecture thus provided many students with their first experience of Kopec's charismatic lecture style, which is punctuated with humor and insight. Additionally the talk served as a broad introduction to the field of environmental design and made a strong argument for the integration of the science of human perception and behavior into the design process.

Kopec began his lecture by stating that people and their built environment have a reflective, symbiotic relationship. As designers, he argues, we need to understand how the environment influences our behaviors - and if these outcomes are things we want to change through design. This process takes a cross disciplinary approach, incorporating scientific research (neurobiological and psychological) into the fundamental order of design operations.

Illustrating his thought process with the principle of Newton's 1st law of motion, Kopec asserts that while we do have the ability to change our behaviors through design, change isn't going to happen unless we push for it, and science is what is needed to justify the motions we make for change. He adds, we can never think of design decisions in isolation, we must always attempt to understand both the intended outcomes of design decisions and the unanticipated consequences as well.

Kopec demonstrated in his presentation the changes that occur over the human lifespan in regards to our perception. For example, our ability to differentiate colors, perceive space, distinguish patterns of light on surfaces all degrade considerably as we age. Combined with the cognitive impairment that is symptomatic of diseases like Alzheimer's, the aging person's ability to navigate the conventional built environment can be markedly challenging. Shapes and patterns can take on new, perhaps sinister, meanings. Kopec draws from perceptual psychology, as well as conversations with communities of caregivers to the elderly, to design solutions for housing Alzheimer's patients. Kopec makes evident that this attentive and informed approach will result in environments that provide more ease, comfort and safety for the patients and their caregivers.

Kopec's presentation did not only focus on design solutions for the disabled and/or elderly.  He also made note of some broad brush approaches that might improve design for every user. He explained the need each one of us has for constant and repeated exposure to environments that stimulate our senses, in order for us to form new neural connections.

Also the need we have for daily exposure to natural light, unshielded from ultraviolet rays, in order to synthesize neurotransmitters like serotonin (which impact mood) and trigger hormones like melatonin (which control circadian rhythms).Some of these observations suggest simple solutions, others represent more complex conditions – but all of these can and should inform design.

Kopec's talk is a moving testimony to the power of design, and how research can empower positive design decisions. The students and faculty here at the BAC, enthusiastically applauded and welcomed a new member to our community. Dak Kopec's work and teaching will undoubtedly enrich the study of design at the BAC, and as he demonstrated we have much to look forward to.