Why is visual perception useful for designers?
To perceive an image is to participate in a forming process; it is a creative act.
- Gyorgy Kepes
This course is developed for communication design practitioners – graphic designers, photographers, illustrators, and many others who consider themselves a part of this profession. The key idea of this course is to help communication designers understand the foundation of perceptual science and how it is utilized in practice. It consists of a set of explorations done by students of my course related to visual perception. This course is meant to invite students and practitioners to understand the psychological principles behind their work. This scientific understanding will help them to grow reflexively as practitioners.
Psychological science is a broad field of study. Within this vast field, the course covers some topics in perception and serves as a gentle introduction that appeals to the designers’ sensibilities. While exploring visual phenomena, key emphasis has been placed on exploring visual illusions. Illusions are phenomena in our everyday lives, with discrepancies between real-world phenomena and how they are perceived. Examples in our everyday lives include a stick that appears bent in a pool of water but is straight. The word illusion arises from the Latin Illudere, meaning “to mock.” These “illusory” phenomena mock the trust we place in our senses.
Illusions, in general, are of vital importance to a student of communication design as reproducing them helps in understanding how the outside world of physical phenomena (which the designer can manipulate) is connected to our psychological world of lived experience.
Artists, artisans, and philosophers have addressed illusions and perceptual errors from time immemorial. However, they achieved a significant focus from psychologists in the nineteenth century, when there was a growth in psychological science. During this growth, there was a widespread interest in understanding illusions. One can find the origins of psychology as an experimental science in Germany in the late 1800s. After this time, psychological science grew on both sides of the Atlantic as a scientific subject, searching for the scientific basis of human perceptual experience, among other broader phenomena.
Background of studies in visual experience
During the early 1900s, a new approach to psychology began coalescing in Germany, known as the Gestalt school of thought. Psychology and Philosophy are earlier precedents of the Gestalt school of thought (see Appendix B). Among the proponents of this approach are Kurt Koffka, Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Kohler. They further trained several students who had an overarching impact on psychological science: Rudolph Arnheim; Kurt Lewin; Wolfgang Metzger; Hans Wallach; Bluma Zeigarnik; Tamara Dembo; Karl Duncker; Maria Ovsiankina; and Kurt Gottschaldt. Amongst these, Rudolph Arnheim significantly impacted the psychology of art and design.
While the history and background of the Gestalt school are broad, the critical impact on art and design was that practitioners learnt about “laws of visual organization” and a scientific basis for several general principles that supported the insights of practicing artists and designers.
The key idea of “gestalt” was postulated by German scholar Christian Ehrenfels. He observed that there is a necessary “unity” in the way we perceive. For example, when we listen to music, we perceive a melody, not individual tones. Ehrenfels, in his essay “On Gestalt Qualities,” highlights that these melodies, conceived as wholes in relation to their parts, are an essential dimension of perceptual experience.
With the shadow of WWII looming in Europe, many gestalt scholars and other psychologists moved to the USA. During this time, various dimensions of psychology were also growing in the USA. With the growth of the computational era, there was the growth of a new science of the mind (i.e. cognitive science) that derived from an amalgamation of psychology, computer science, neuroscience, philosophy and linguistics. The growth of cognitive science also helped develop the “information processing” metaphor of the mind. In this metaphor, the mind is likened to a processing entity that takes in environmental stimuli and processes them to present experiential meaning. Researchers working under the information processing paradigm also seriously considered the key ideas and principles of gestalt psychology and squarely folded them with the information processing metaphor of the mind. The dominant current approaches to understanding visual perception derive from the information processing approach and gestalt psychology.
Along with Gestalt principles, there are also multiple aspects of human perception that will be helpful for communication designers. These include the relation between size and distance; colours, lightness; brightness and contrast, among many other topics.
In our current course, we explore these various visual phenomena, illusions and general topics related to visual perception. These various explorations enable designers to obtain an intuitive understanding of visual phenomena. The following section explores the foundations of visual perception and builds the groundwork for the various explorations in the subsequent sections.