Public Involvement Techniques
4.C.g - Visual Preference
What is a visual preference survey?
A visual preference survey is a technique that assists the community
in determining which components of a plan or project environment
contributes positively to a community's overall image or features.
As the name implies, the technique is based on the development of
one or more visual concepts of a proposed plan or project. Once
the visual concepts are developed, they are used in a public forum
or other specialized public gathering to provide the public with
an opportunity to review, study, and comment on their preferences
for the features depicted by the visual representations. Typical
uses of visual preference surveys include helping the community
define the preferences for architectural style, signs, building
setbacks, landscaping, parking areas, size/scope of transportation
facilities, surfaces finishes, and other design elements.
The format for the preference survey can be a written ballot,
a structured set of self-administered questions, a facilitated discussion,
a focus group format, an open semi-structured forum, or used as
part of another preference collection approach, e.g., handheld/instant
Why is it useful?
Visual preference surveys are helpful since they provide the
public with a broad and relatively inexpensive range of options
for depicting community features for a proposed plan or project.
The actual technique may rely on sketches, photographs, computer
images, or similar techniques to provide the basis for participants
to rate or assess each visual depiction on a preference scale, such
as a five-point scale. As a result, participants can express judgments
and possibly reach a consensus about a visual design, architecture,
site layout, landscape, and similar design features, which may be
incorporated in the goals, objectives, design guidelines, enhancement/mitigation
measures, and/or recommended standards for a study, plan or project.
Does it have special uses?
Visual preference surveys can assist agencies in the understanding
and development of:
- Community and urban design features
- Transportation sub-area or corridor studies
- Transportation alternatives development and analysis
- Large-scale regional planning efforts
- Visioning exercises (See Visioning)
- Design charrettes (See Charrettes)
Who participates? And how?
Public participation will be dependent on the type of visual
preference survey technique employed. For example, if a focus
group format is used, then some public selection process must be
used to include a set of individuals who are representative of the
views and interest of the larger community. At other times, the
visual preference survey may be included as part of a public hearing
or public meeting process, with one of several "stations"
or display areas containing the visual options. At the display area
some means of collecting feedback from interested viewers will be
needed, such as responses to a structured interview administered
by staff or the completion by the viewer of a preference rating
How do agencies use the output?
The results of the survey will provide insights and direction
to the agency on the preference of the sampled group. Based on the
objectives of the survey and the representation of the community
in the sampled group, the agency may make key decisions on the preferred
types of project design features, studies, or plans. The results
of the survey are also helpful in focusing community opinion on
projects and plans, being a catalyst for further discussions, helping
to educate the public about the design or plan choices, and offering
an alternative form of collecting public or community opinion and
feedback. Because of the visual basis of this technique, concepts
and survey results are easily conveyed in the mass media.
What are the costs?
The cost for the visual preference surveys are usually a few
hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the range of
visual options to be displayed, the desired sample size, and the
method(s) of collecting and analyzing public preferences. This techniques
can be implemented using agency personnel and resources or through
How is it used with other techniques?
Visual preference surveys can complement other survey techniques.
(See Public Opinion Surveys.)
It can also be used as part of a wider set of techniques to help
educate the public about key features of a project or plan and to
assist in the development of ideas or concepts. Consequently, visual
preference surveys can be used in conjunction with public meetings
or hearings, activities involving vision development, design charrettes,
and focus group discussions or small group meetings. (See Public
Groups; Small Group
What are the drawbacks?
Visual preference surveys are time consuming since they
will require the development of one or more visual renderings of
options or design features under consideration. This set-up time
may require several weeks of preparation, depending on the availability
of data, the skills of the artist, and the desired size and level
of detail for the visual rendering.
Agencies using this technique will need to consider alternative
methods for involving people with visual impairments. (See People
Because of the visual sophistication of the public, given the
pervasiveness and societal influence of mass media and advertising,
there may be expectations on the part of the public for high quality
and completeness. The public may dismiss the visual content
because the renderings or presentation are not developed to a comparable
level of detail and quality they are use to viewing in the print
and visual mass media.
It is also possible for the public to develop false expectations
based on the visual rendering. Agencies need to ensure that a designer's
visualizations are true.
When is it used most effectively?
Visual preference surveys are most effective when major design
feature decision needs to be made. The technique is also valuable
in helping to build a community consensus and momentum on a preferred
design or study approach. Because of its visual nature, this technique
is also most effective when complex issues and concepts can be depicted
For further information:
Dane" Pilot Project, Citizen-Based Land Use Planning in
Dane County, Wisconsin, Electronic Planning Facilitation
software based simulation model, Paul Waddell, 206-221-4161
for Regional Policy analysis, Envision Utah Case Study
House Institute for Sustainable Development, Tools for Community
Design and Decision Making, Inventory of Place-Based Planning
Mankato, MN Urban Design Framework Manual, Visual Preference
Survey (Chapter 2)
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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle
at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls
at FTA (202-366-5362).