Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How Things Look, Not What They Mean

Many years ago, when trying to figure out how to teach two-dimensional design (a subject, like most I profess, I never studied in school) I became convinced that cognition can be an obstacle to seeing. I recognize that such a statement is probably physiologically nonsensical, so let me explain. We are so eager to figure out what things mean that we ignore other things in the visual field. Makes sense if you are trying to avoid being eaten by a tiger or hit by a bus. But it works against you if you are trying to assemble a whole system–a visual image or arrangement of elements. Which is too bad, because the way things are put together is a critical part of what they mean. Hierarchies and contrasts can and should be seen independent of content–e.g., by squinting–because then and only then is it possible to see how formal relationships work. The tyrant cognition suppresses vision. If the king goes unchallenged, he will make mistakes.

At the top of this post: a classic example of such an error, aided and abetted by the pretending prince of the real, photography.

I took this photograph at a Phillips 66 gas station near my home. It's an oval-shaped sticker slapped on the gasoline pump, presumably printed in a run of thousands. It seeks to warn us of dangers associated with static electricity, though it doesn't exactly say that. Rather we receive two instructions: 1) touch some metal thing other than the pump before grabbing it, and 2) don't get back in the car after you've started, because that could produce undesirable electricity. If I don't do 1 or I do do 2, will I blow up? Not sure.

Of course, the dominant message is BE SAFE WHEN FUELING, which isn't so much an instruction as an exhortation. And the goof-ass centered type that rolls around the perimeter of the oval is hard to gather into a reading experience.

In short: the copywriting, design and typsetting are awful. But that's not why I noticed the sticker in the first place, nor why I whipped out my phone to "snap" (quaint verb) the photograph.

No, I documented the sticker because of the picture within the upper portion of the oval.

One day, following a planning session for Static Electricity Liability Week, whoever art directed this thing tapped a pencil against his head and said, "We need a picture of a hand putting gas in a car." Soon after that, such a photograph was produced, possibly by the very same art director, who in all likelihood was the one guy in the office who had used Photoshop. And because he knew that was what he had done, and because he could see the picture right there, he popped that photo into a semicircular hole and called that sucker done.

Alas. The fact is, he didn't really see the photograph. He looked at it, but he didn't see it. Because the visual image shows something that is considerably less than clear. At the left side of the image we see an arm/hand holding a metallic hose-looking thing. But halfway across the format, the form of the hand abuts a dark value mass. The dark mass has a few lighter passages, most notably an elliptical light spot that reads like a cartoon nose.

It takes sustained effort to make out that the dark mass consists of black and dark blue elements. Once we figure that out, we can reason our way to a conclusion that hand is holding a black nozzle, and the dark blue must be the side of a vehicle being fueled. But that's like perceiving a toad on the brown mottled ground. If we're not looking for it, we won't see it. (If the car had been light blue or tan or red, we'd have gotten separation between the parts of the visual field: arm/hand, hose, nozzle, car, non-stuff).

A safety message has been fatally undermined by a failure to contemplate how something looks independent of what it means. Which takes me back to my original point. You can't design if you can't stop thinking about what things mean, because then you can't focus on how things look.

Informational pictures must be lucid. There's much to be said about them, including how things can be broken into parts, how space can be manipulated, how contrast can be managed, how attributes of pictures and charts can be combined successfully as well as less so.

I have been writing on informational images since I started this blog. Because our students are at work on a problem that requires them to construct such things, I've assembled a set of prior posts below.

On the basic attributes of informational pictures, see my first post on the subject, from 2007. Here, a reflection on the pleasures of lucidity. Here some writing on maps as images, and representations of processes. On making informational images as a way to gather information, an account of star-watching in the Utah desert. And finally, a set of images that present data in comparable ways, from Matisse to Chrysler.

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