By Nora Velander, Konstfack University of Arts, Crafts and Design 

People’s imprints and how they could be used in designing, planning and building spaces

What imprints do we make in the public space? And what meaning do they hold for us? How do they work? What do these traces contain? What are the characteristics of the traces we leave?

All the imprints we leave communicate something about a human having been there, that something has happened there, or what the space is used for and how. In this project I have been thinking about how we as architects (and other professions that take part in the process of designing, planning and building spaces) can use these tracks and imprints to understand what is needed and indirectly ask people what they want or need.


Four categories of imprints

1. Intentional imprints



My first category of imprints is the imprints that someone has made intentionally. I think that everyone has a natural curiosity towards the people around them, and they are also interested in who was here before.

The field of archaeology is about seeing imprints and traces of who was here before. Closely related to that is the basic human need to be seen, that I think is both about being seen now, as well as being seen by people after us. Maybe that is why many people have a desire to become famous. This phenomenon might play a big part in why many people make imprints intentionally.

When I’ve been walking around the city looking for imprints and traces I have noticed that there seems to be a common need to be seen through one’s imprints and marks, such as carvings, graffiti and tags. In the environments we create many people would argue that these imprints look bad. But what if the public space was made in such a way that it was more tolerant in terms of making marks? Perhaps then more people might embrace their desire to do that.


2 Broken or patinated imprints

My second category of imprints is traces that show something has been broken or patinated in a different way than planned. I think these kinds of imprints are most likely made by accident and are very common in the public space. We tend to try and overthrow them by trying to erase them, often with the aim of restoring the area to looking the same as before. It seems these kinds of imprints are the ones that make us throw away things and renovate areas and buildings, even though we know that this is not good practice when it comes to saving the resources we have in this world. Maybe we should work with them instead of against them when we create an environment. As architects, I think we could learn from these kinds of imprints; how can we design an environment that includes and maybe even benefits from them?

3 Imprints as the lack of people

In my third category, the imprints are the obvious lack of people. A place where you can see that something is made for a human, often in a very specific way. It’s almost as if there is an imprint of a person in the air where someone should be or used to be. An empty bench, for instance, where you can almost see a human sitting there, but the space is unoccupied. Or a lost mitten could be an imprint of the person who lost it and an imprint of the hand that used to wear it.


4 Deformed ground, footprints and paths

My last category is the imprints that are traces and marks left on the ground through continuous movement, often from several people. I have noticed that these traces are formed by the removal of material from the surface (caused by people moving), for example on paths in the forest or on a lawn. These kinds of imprints can also be made quickly if the material on the ground is easy to form, like sand or thin ice, then one person’s movement over the surface can be enough.


Imprints when planning and designing spaces

As architects, we have power over people’s everyday lives and I think that we need to think about what we do with that power; how we use it and also how we should not use it. For example, where we decide to put a wall will affect how people use that space and how people will interact. Or, how we program a square will affect how people will use it. Therefore I think we have a responsibility and need to ask people and investigate what they want to have and how we can improve our design based on those needs.


There are many different ways of doing this; in my work I have come up with a suggestion on how we could do it that complements more direct questions. In my investigation on imprints and traces I have come up with a vision of how we could use and study people’s imprints to: get answers to the questions of what people need and want, or to work with our natural movements, habits and needs in a new way, by investigating the imprints people leave. Many imprints don’t appear until the same movement is made by a large number of people, like the traces in category four: ‘Deformed ground, footprints and paths.’


What if we try to apply that knowledge when we are planning a square? We could start out with a lawn covering the whole square and then after one or two months we would be able to see where to put the walkways and the best spot for flower beds, trees and fountains, based on people’s patterns of movement. I think that could be a way of asking people what they want and how they want their part of the city to be, and we  would do it in an environmentally friendly way.

The example of Skärholmen used to illustrate this suggested design approach.

First grass will be planted on the whole square.

After a month or two paths appear in the grass. Then all of us who are designing, planning and building the square can look at these paths and draw conclusions from them, such as seeing where we should make walkways and where to place the other objects we might want in that square. In this way we could use the square as a big drawing board and try things before executing them permanently, while asking people how they want their surroundings to be formed.