5 questions with Cognitive Design's Matt Finn

Matthew Finn, AIA is an architect and Founder of Cognitive Design, a consulting and design firm specialized in improving people's lives by studying complex issues related to the design and use of the built environment. Matt is happily married; he and his wife Stephanie have one daughter and live in Atlanta.

Photo: Luke Beard

Photo: Luke Beard

Joe Waters (Co-Founder + CEO, Capita): At Cognitive Design you believe that “human health and wellbeing are the highest callings of design.” Tell us how good design leads to good health. 

MF: Environmental factors play a major role in overall health, both positively and negatively, and in both really obvious and non-obvious ways. In addition to mitigating obvious negatives, like contaminants in our water and air, we tune in to things that can be really easy to miss or ignore and focus on enhancing positive behavioral outcomes. For example, my family and I live in a condo in Atlanta and our home has a small porch. We have lots of potted plants and it’s a place for our 4-year-old daughter to have safe unstructured play time outside. Creating a place for this specific type of play promotes healthy cognitive development and the interaction with nature’s microbiome supports healthy immune function. And it’s simply fun for her. This is just one way our home facilitates health in a way that’s accessible for us. We haven’t gotten rid of our TV, but we’ve made an effort to provide other options for an active physical and social environment that’s overall more interesting and enjoyable for our daughter. This is just one small example of how my wife and I approached the design of our home, and we apply many similar principles when we design for each of our clients. 

JW: Your work is based on the latest insights from neuroscience about how the built environment impacts well-being. You began this work by exploring opportunities to improve outcomes for veterans suffering from PTSD. Tell us about that project and a little bit about how what you learned might help children who experience toxic stress. 

MF: PTSD is a psychological disorder that affects how a person interacts with their surroundings. I’m not a veteran, and as an architect I’m not trained in psychology - so the first thing I did was team up with a clinical psychologist from the VA and a United States Marine veteran to study this disordered state and its recovery process. Together, the three of us explored the role of the built environment in facilitating psychotherapeutic interventions focused on healing and recovery and identified opportunities for design to positively contribute to this process. 

What a specific person feels is a safe space varies, so not everything from veterans translates to children, but much of it does. The biggest thing I learned is that our memories and thoughts (conscious and unconscious) are just as physically material as our skin and bones. I like the term “toxic stress” because it really embodies this truth. As a conversational tool, recognizing the physicality of the electrical activity of neurons that we refer to as our thoughts is a great conversational tool for breaking down the awful stigma about mental health care. Nobody scoffs at getting a cast for a broken arm, so if we can make our thoughts as unelusive as a bone fracture, we’re making progress. 

That said, every person’s past affects how they perceive themselves and the world around them. Survivors of traumatic events can learn to move forward and live fulfilling lives, with their past as a part of their story. Although many people naturally recover from traumatic experiences, when someone needs a psychotherapeutic intervention to help, the constructed and social environment in which therapy occurs can contribute to the individual and their support network feeling comfortable enough to do the therapy work necessary for their recovery. 

Toxic stress in children can manifest in many different ways (which can affect the whole family), such as behavioral changes or even a depressed immune system. Recognizing this can help in several ways. First, we know the importance of preventative efforts - helping to avoid or limit exposure to trauma, whenever possible. Second, even after a trauma has occurred, while the child is relearning to trust others, we can promote compassionate care, because in most cases full recovery is possible. The potential for full recovery provides hope and fully exemplifies the long-term and societal value of ensuring these children and their families have access to support services. 

JW: We’ve talked a bit about the need to redesign pediatric clinical environments to support the early relational health of young children. What is the biggest thing you’d change about how most pediatric clinics are designed? 

MF: The typical experience of an American pediatric clinic is way too detached from the rest of our lives, by being located somewhere you wouldn’t ordinarily go, like in an office park or hospital. And for many families, the time with their provider is barely enough to cover the most basic reasons for the visit: height, weight, brief physical exam, developmental milestones check, vaccines, and you’re out the door. This all happens as if “health” could somehow be boiled down to a set of measurements that are disconnected from the rest of life. 

I’d like to see the experience of a pediatric clinical environment better integrated into the community, and with more overlap with the typical activities of daily living. I’d like to explore this interaction as primarily a learning event where children and families build consensus about making holistically healthy choices that are available to them. A positive change in the way we think about the purpose of a clinic would fundamentally change how we approach the design of the physical space, in a way that makes both parents and children more comfortable, and ready to learn principles and skills that they can apply in daily life. The designed environment, along with other factors, can help to set the tone in a way that changes a “checking the boxes” appointment into a health-promoting visit. 

JW: What’s a project you’ve dreamed about, but haven’t started yet? 

MF: As an architect, I’m interested in how environment affects behavior, and I see untapped value in designing ordinary places where people spend the most time and where we make significant choices - places like home, school, and the grocery store. I’d love to do a deep dive into something in one of these areas, like looking at the food environment for families with young children. Have you ever noticed that processed and sugary foods are front and center at most grocery stores? And that your refrigerator relegates fresh produce to a drawer that is literally below everything else? Just imagine how the economy of stocking shelves and building appliances would change if we placed more value in the long-term societal outcomes of promoting good nutrition. Even the way we physically arrange things can influence what we consider a “special treat” – think about healthy fruit instead of empty candy. This is one of my dreams, among many! Because I also really enjoy getting to work with other people who are passionate about their own dreams, I know I have many new collaborative projects coming up! 

JW: What building-- anywhere in the world-- inspires you the most? 

MF: In 2014 I had the honor of presenting our early PTSD work at the Academy of Neuroscience For Architecture conference, which was held at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA. For many architects, the Salk Institute is almost considered sacred ground - and for good reason. It’s a place where some of the top minds in science have been inspired and have made creative breakthroughs and discoveries that extend benefits to people far beyond the walls of this singular place. I’m so thankful to have had a glimpse of this experience firsthand, and I find it incredibly inspiring to think about the countless lives that have benefitted from the creativity that’s been attracted to, and facilitated by, this special work of architecture. I’m an architect because I want to make the world a better place - and I love the thought that the work I’m doing will live on for future generations and reach far more people than I’d ever be able to serve myself.