What is Information-Processing?


Information Processing (1982, 1989) aside from its more generic connotation in psychology is a habitat-based theory of landscape aesthetics, which has been postulated and heavily researched by Rachael and Stephen Kaplan, both resident professors at Michigan University, USA. 

Rachael and Steven Kaplan are a husband and wife team of environmental psychologists, Rachael Kaplan is a professor in the School of Natural Resources, and her husband Stephen is a professor in the Dept of Psychology. They are thus an eminently compatible pair to have engaged this topic, and they have been carrying out empirical research on landscape aesthetics for over 37 years.  The work of the Kaplan’s represents the most erudite academic investigation into the topic of landscape aesthetics that has ever been carried out.

The ‘Information Processing’ theory of landscape aesthetics sits comfortably within the broader remit of Habitat theory, and is no way contradictory to it or to Prospect-Refuge theory, but it is complimentary to both since Appleton also saw human appreciation of landscape aesthetics as being tied to information processing.  Indeed ‘Information Processing’ theory seems to me to some extent at least to pick up where Appleton left off. 

Theoretical Synopsis

The Kaplans believe humans beings, via perception, need to make sense of their environment and be actively involved in it.  It is with this simple premise we see the clear connection to the basic premise of habitat theory – survival instincts.  Overall the information-processing theory is most compelling, and is founded on a two by two preferential matrix. 

During their research the Kaplans identified four landscape preference predictor variables…

Two of these variables (coherence and legibility) initially help one understand and make sense of the environment, and the other two (complexity and mystery) encourage its exploration.

The Kaplan’s predictor variables form part of a composite whole, and are all present together in one scene to greater or lesser extents, but I have attempted to isolate them in the visual model below for the purpose of aiding a visual understanding for those not trained in design…

Each of the images above in my model represents a strong visual example, or dominance of that particular predictor variable in that respective image (scene).

NB: All the four predictor variables are however, present in each of the four images, but the named one is most significant in that particular image.

Coherence: is the ease of cognition by which a landscape scene or perceptual field can be comprehended. It is the perception of the holistic organisation within the scene – is there an order to the scene? In detail it is the extent of repetition and sequence, and the presence of harmony and balance.

Complexity: is the scene’s capacity to keep an individual interested and not bored. The elements giving rise to complexity are often referred to as: diversity, variety or richness. It is considered to be the single most important factor within a scene. The greater the complexity the greater will be the preference.

Legibility: represents the visual cues to facilitate orientation, navigation and movement within the scene. It is thus connected to safety, the ability to not get lost, and to retrace one’s steps back to the starting point. The ability to explore with confidence.

Mystery: is the suggestion that more information or experience could be forthcoming by venturing deeper into the scene. New information is not visible, but concealed by one mechanism or another: a curve in the path, a tension point, an elevated ridge, so there is a suggestion by that which is concealed, an anticipation and desire is incited. Mystery thus drives movement through the scene.

According to the Kaplan’s framework, which I believe can be applied to all landscape design realms, and all landscape scales, landscapes which are preferred are: coherent, legible, complex and mysterious. Or in other words an aesthetic landscape scene or perceptual field contains visual evidence of a combination of these elements or characteristics in the landscape composition, to some degree or another.

For clarity of definition the ‘composition’ I speak of might be: fully natural, (which is exceedingly rare in the UK for example,) semi-natural, (i.e. part designed, or an arrested climax, but perceived as natural,) or fully designed, and at the far end of the spectrum to the point of being contrived even. I do not speak of ‘composition’ in this context as just that which is the result of man’s deliberate design of the landscape…

The ‘design’ composition arrives in all cases by the actions of one of two major agents, or a combination of both, that is the agent of natural abiotic geographic forces like: macro and micro climate, soil conditions, altitude, topography, aspect, or/and the agent of biotic forces, ie human or/and animal intervention. Of course, the conscious and purposeful design of landscapes by man represents the ultimate type of landscape composition, at the opposite end of the spectrum to fully natural.

The Kaplan’s research has primarily been focused on larger scale semi-natural North American landscapes like woodlands and forests, and on the restorative health benefits to humans experienced by connecting with nature in these particular landscape types. As one moves through (explores) the landscape, the scenes and thus the scale of the variables change, but the four variables remain the same. In ‘designed’ landscape we call this movement or exploration sequential journey…

Application to Designed Landscape
While the Kaplan’s model is applicable and functional in these naturalistic landscape types and scales, I will now show that the model is applicable in more ‘designed’ landscapes of smaller scale, including parks and gardens. Indeed, in well-designed human orientated landscapes the Kaplan’s variables of coherence, complexity, legibility and mystery can all become elevated to new levels and thus have more visual power. Below is a landscape scene from a very contrived contemporary science park design: Parc de la Villette, Paris, France…

MYSTERY, LEGIBILITY, COMPLEXITY, and COHERENCE at Parc de la Villette, Paris, France in the image above: while the scene is coherent, the complexity in this particular scene is in my opinion lacking, with a tendency to be boring; the path to the ridge is however inviting (legibility), and the mystery offered by the tree copse is desirable. Below a much richer and dynamically interesting scene from Parc de la Villette…

MYSTERY, LEGIBILITY, COMPLEXITY, and COHERENCE at Parc de la Villette, Paris, France in the image above: the variety and richness in this scene from Parc de la Villette is invigorating (coherence and complexity); navigation is crystal clear (legibility); and the curiosity incited by the structure and what lies inside is powerful (mystery).

And below a smaller scale and a far more intimate landscape scene from Villa Malgaresh, one of LandARCHConcepts projects in the South of France…

MYSTERY, LEGIBILITY, COMPLEXITY, and COHERENCE at Villa Malgaresh, Cote d’Azur, France in the image above: the scene is rich (complexity), well organised and composed (coherence), the grotto is alluring (mystery), and the path there most clear (legibility. Below another scene from Villa Malgaresh…

MYSTERY, LEGIBILITY, COMPLEXITY, and COHERENCE at Villa Malgaresh, Cote d’Azur, France in the image above: the scene is super rich (complexity), and well composed (coherence), the entire lower terraces are filled with magical intrigue (mystery), and the path there is clear (legibility). Though pretty much everything of the lower terraces is concealed, there is a strong sense of great potential to acquire more information and new experiences. Below one final image from Villa Malgaresh – the second terrace down from this one showing the extent of concealment and the richness of information available on exploration…

MYSTERY, LEGIBILITY, COMPLEXITY, and COHERENCE at Villa Malgaresh, Cote d’Azur, France in the image above: the path and steps are very evident (legibility); the partial view of the fountain is alluring (mystery); while the balance, order and variety in the scene is manifest (coherence and complexity). Just from this image and the previous one it can be seen how mystery and legibility drives movement around the garden (sequential journey).

The Natural Language of Landscape

NB: Ultimately words are just a concept or container, they encapsulate: a knowledge, a function, an idea, an emotion, a feeling or whatever! So, to me the Kaplan’s predictor variables, although descriptive terms selected specifically by them, (coherence, legibility, complexity and mystery,) can I believe be considered to represent the subliminal layperson’s ‘readability’ of the landscape, the natural ‘language’ of the landscape if you like…

Thus, a well composed professionally designed landscape scene will ‘read’ well because of the skill used in its composition. The end user will not necessarily or consciously comprehend such high-level design imperatives, or professional vocabulary as: space and mass, scale and proportion, or balance and emphasis etc, but they will subliminally comprehend the: coherence, complexity, legibility and mystery inherent in the landscape scene, though of course they might not recognise or express these things in those actual terms either. As I said the words themselves are concepts. The words we use to describe emotions are arbitrary, but the emotions incited by the landscape are not arbitrary, they are precise. They take us back to a time when language was visual and not verbal.

As shown in the diagram above the Information-Processing theory thus indirectly relates well to the long-established principles of landscape organisation and composition in designed landscapes. It is in the composition where a good landscape design stands out from a bad one, and it is in here where the Kaplan’s predictor variables can be seen to originate.…

Once more as with the other theories of landscape aesthetics this all confirms again that landscape design is more of a psychological design discipline than a physical design discipline…

An Analysis from Existing Designed Landscapes
For decades, long before the Kaplan’s work started, landscape architects and garden designers have intrinsically been utilising the compositional structures that the Kaplan’s have now identified in their preferential matrix. We can perform a rudimentary visual evaluation on many of our well-designed heritage landscape gardens to show that the designers in question knew very well what was aesthetic, and through their understandings of landscape design they encapsulated the notions later to be postulated by the Kaplan’s.

Below are two examples from Rousham House and Garden designed by William Kent (1685 – 1748)…

MYSTERY, LEGIBILITY, COMPLEXITY, and COHERENCE at Rousham Gardens, UK in the image above: I am drawn to the dark mysterious path, the path there is clear to read (legibility), and it is reinforced by continuity of green vegetation (coherence), but I am intrigued by what lies around the corner (mystery)?

MYSTERY, LEGIBILITY, COMPLEXITY, and COHERENCE at Rousham Gardens, UK in the image above: I am drawn to the naturally illuminated focal point that is beautifully framed, the path there is clear to read (legibility), and it is reinforced by continuity of green vegetation (coherence), but until I get there, I am intrigued by what lies beyond (mystery)?

Below a similar arrangement to the Rousham scene above showing compositional elements corresponding to the Kaplan’s preferential variables, this time at Hidcote Gardens, UK, designed by Major Lawrence Johnston (1871–1958)…

MYSTERY, COMPLEXITY, LEGIBILITY and COHERENCE (Information-Processing) at Hidcote Gardens in the image above: The path is clear (legibility), it is reinforced with repeated plant forms and colours either side (coherence), the way is enframed by topiary and trees (coherence), but I can’t see beyond the ridge – I want to venture there (mystery), plus the whole scene is rich with plant textures, colours, forms, and contrasting hard landscape (complexity).

And as a final example a scene from Alhambra Gardens, Spain…

MYSTERY, COMPLEXITY, COHERENCE, and LEGIBILITY in the Alhambra Palace Gardens, Spain: I can see the upper storey loggia, but I do wonder what the gardens look like from up there (mystery), I think I just have to go there? The path there is very clear (legibility), the contrast between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ landscape elements is simply magnificent, I could stay here all day (complexity and coherence).


As with the Prospect-Refuge theory, or the Sense of Place theory by understanding what is appealing to the human psyche in the landscape we can design better more client orientated landscapes, that have meaning and value beyond their physical worth!  At LandARCHConcepts we strive to ensure that we create the best possible places for our clients.

Graham Slocombe © 2019

Additional Links
See more of Villa Malgaresh…..

Additional reading around the topic…..
What is Sense of Place?
What is Sequential Journey?
What is Prospect-Refuge?
What is Landscape Aesthetics and Environmental Psychology?

What is a ‘Room Outside’?


Why are we Fascinated by Gardens?
Why Employ a Professional Landscape Designer?
How to Choose a Landscape Professional?

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