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Sensory Design by Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka (Book Review)

By Maria Lorena Lehman — Get more articles like this sent to your email HERE.

Name: Sensory Design by Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka

URL: Sensory Design (affiliate link)

Purpose: to explain in-depth and clearly how humans interact and perceive architectural design


Sensory Design is a book to really make you, as an architect, more aware of how your designs impact people. Taking and in-depth look at how humans perceive space and built form, Sensory Design is really quite a remarkable publication.

Written by Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka, every page is filled with insight that will help you to become a better designer. Their unique way of presenting diagrams, illustrations and photographs really help to make an otherwise complex topic easy to understand.

Many of you, my readers, email me looking for a good resource on the topic of human perception and architectural design. Very often, I find myself recommending this book. In fact, there are very few books that seriously delve into the topic of sensory perception and design in such a detailed fashion. It brings modern day practice together with historical trends and then it ties theories together with findings about the brain to really help designers understand why certain design decision might work and why some might not.

Again, Sensory Design is a great find as it is much needed in the architectural discipline.


As you’ve probably heard me say before, the topic which this book covers is very important for architects and other designers to understand. Plus, I like that the authors go an extra step further by explaining human perception from a designer’s stand-point.

I think it best to show you what I’m talking about. Here is an excerpt that I particularly like:

“He maintains that a connection exists between individual distance (the normal spacing of humans) and personal space, which may be thought of “as a portable territory, since the individual carries it with him wherever he goes, although it disappears unders certain conditions, such as crowding. It is the sort of space that W.H. Auden refers to in his “Prologue: The Birth of Architecture”:Some thirty inches from my noseThe frontier of my Person goes…

This raises the question of just how far our ”frontiers” actually do go, and the degree to which each sense is responsible for understanding distance. Golledge and Stimson point out that because the real world is complex, sending out millions of information signals, we can only be aware of a small portion of them. This information is experienced and recorded as differentials of color, heat, motion, sound, pressure, direction, and whatever else is present and within the range of the senses. Because we record only those stimuli that have a bearing on our particular needs, perceptions may differ.” (Sensory Design, pages 150-152)

As you can see, this book makes it easy for you because the authors have collected very significant and relevant information about what qualities make a space and how those qualities may be interpreted by your occupants. Additionally, Sensory Design includes both broad and detailed explanations which are extremely useful as you work making numerous design decisions at a time.


Sensory Design is filled with many different formats to help you learn. The authors have really done their research and will provide you with concrete examples of the different theories about the intersection between the human senses and architectural design compositions.

Plus, history is a part of it too. Not only do Malnar and Vodvarka incorporate the latest findings about the human senses, but they also make links and connections so you can understand how and why certain architectural design techniques stick and others don’t.

There are many nuggets of wisdom in this book — true gems.

I have seen other books that claim to link architectural design to how humans perceive and none that I have seen so far come close to this one. If I had to recommend one comprehensive book on this subject to get you started and that I think would help to make you a better designer, then this is it.

I am sure that you will pick this 356 page book up again and again. I know I do.

Here is the book link: Sensory Design (affiliate link)


what members are saying...
Maria: I came across your website through a reference in today's Architect Weekly ezine and am delighted I did. I'll bookmark your site and check back often. I read the first article and then the second and thirty minutes later realized how much time had passed. I've been practicing for thirty years and have always missed the stimulation of academia. I find each of your brief dissertations sort of like a day in design studio. Thanks for the inspiration.

Ron Ward
AI Group Design
I am excited to see you touch a vein of values in architecture, I have been chasing myself for years. Your depth of involvement in these very deep subjects is really beautiful and passionately dealt with and well written. Sound, color and value, shape, texture, scale, smell.... all definitive measures of the spaces we should be alert to. [...] I will savor the rest of your investigation of sensuality in architecture. I'm Glad I found you.

Dennis McLaughlin
McLaughlin Architect
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Maria Lorena Lehman is a multi award-winning visionary author, designer, and educator from the United States. Maria holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Virginia Tech and a Master in Design with Distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. CLICK HERE to learn more.

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