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Design: the parts & the whole — chapter 2 – visual perception, literacy, and sensiti





The study of visual design requires at least a glimpse into the complex world of visual perception: how we see. The complexity exists because visual perception encompasses psychology, spirituality, biology and physics, and because much is yet to be understood about visual perception.

It is believed that how we see evolved, along with all our other capacities, through the process of natural selection – our survival characteristics (Myers 1). How we see developed and was modified by natural selection to best enhance our chances to live and procreate. To maximize our chances for survival, visual perception had to convey clear information such as distinguishing a branch from a snake. With this kind of urgent, survival need our brain developed to seek clear meaning from our visual field. The process is immediate and subconscious. It has been called the “perceptual imperative” and is a major survival characteristic. When the brain cannot understand or decipher meaning from a visual experience, the individual may turn off, ignore, disregard or even become hostile. This can help explain much of the general public’s reaction to a great deal of 20th century abstract art. Experiments in sensory deprivation have shown that when we cannot find meaning in our visual environment, mental disorientation and even mental illness can result, and if there is no meaning evident we may invent one (Myers 4).

Biological evolution is not the only influence on our visual perception; experience and learning also play very large roles. We have not only eyes but also ears, nose, skin and tongue. All bring us a barrage of information every second of our waking hours. The brain must take this information and give it meaning. It does so by continually comparing new information with models or paradigms that we already have experienced and have stored in our memories. How each individual interprets the information of their senses is dependent on many things, but primarily on what is already stored in the mind. Our perceptions can be greatly altered by our “state of mind.” Illness often affects how you see and interpret information, as do other physical and mental states such as exhaustion, depression, or elation (Myers 9).

Knowledge and experience provide us with information and models needed to form and change perceptions. Information of the senses alone cannot be relied on. If we did rely on the senses alone, the world would still be flat and the earth would be the center of the universe.

Due to each individual’s unique background and physical qualities no two people receive exactly the same visual information. Our unique visual experiences are due to differences in education, psychological tendencies and our individual imperfections. Our perception is not a constant but a continually evolving process that changes as we change in many ways. What we see around us is not objective reality but a subjective, personalized vision (Myers 10). Our sense of reality is shaped by our thoughts. This is a difficult concept to grasp as we are led to believe that reality is trust upon us by forces outside ourselves. The truth is that we can create a sense of reality by how we think about what we see and experience (Pransky). As an example, suppose we see a garter snake. If we look at the garter snake and think about the beautiful colors and patterns of its skin and about how incredibly rhythmic and controlled its movements are, we create a reality of beauty for that snake. On the other hand, if we look at the same snake and think of negative associations we may have heard concerning snakes we can create a reality of fear.

The uniqueness of each person’s sense of reality is yet another invitation to the concept of tolerance (previously mentioned in relation to subatomic particles). With our perceptions of reality altered by our own personal experiences and physical makeup, it would be highly irrational to expect everyone to see, think, or behave the way you do.  This understanding goes beyond tolerance and accepts the reality of individual differences and acknowledges their right to exist.

A great deal of what we think we understand is illusion and we readily accept it as reality. Both perceptual (what we see) and psychological (what we think) worlds are real to the individual (Myers 10). In the late 20th century, discerning illusion from reality has become a very difficult task. In the “information age” mass media has become the major source of information for most people, and for most people the television is the favored vehicle, providing both verbal and visual information and illusions. A problem with this system of information and illusions is that the main function of television is not to disseminate information about understanding life but to make money. Illusions are created to achieve marketability and to inspire quick-repeated consumption. The commercial necessities of our television system make it imperative to create desire for the new and dissatisfaction with the old, keeping the fire of consumerism constantly burning. Our perceptions are persistently shaped as we are told what to want and how to live. This shaping is not done by just advertising but by nearly all programming seen on commercial television.  The redundant sit-coms and soaps that revolve around the lives of the rich or almost rich serve not only as entertainment but also models of what we should “want” next in our own life-styles. Paid product placement in television programs and films is a growing area of marketing. It is rarely by accident that a recognizable product is seen in a movie or television program. A fee has been paid and many times through a competitive bidding process. A famous example of missed opportunity was when M & Ms turned down buying their product into the film ET. Instead Reeses Pieces paid the fee and their sales went through the ceiling. Our sense of reality, be it international, national, local and even personal, is formed by the illusions needed to sustain our economic structure. Television and film are perfect vehicles for those illusions.

It is often the business of artists, whether fine or commercial, to create illusions of one kind or another. The study of fundamental design seeks to enlarge the student’s vision and perceptual skills because those skills are at the core of forming new and fresh ideas, which are the essence of all art (Myers 11). In our economy idea and not the product is the basic commodity of art. The end product – the painting, the ad, the video, the sculpture – can be produced by a trained craftsman or technician, but the idea, conceived through creative visual perception is the real thing of value. The structure of an advertising agency verifies this, with the high monetary reward going to those who conceive the ads and considerably less to those who produce them. The same basic structure prevails throughout the business world. The creative idea is the germinating force in a market system.

Perceptual imperative was defined earlier as our brain’s intuitive drive to create meaning out of visual perception. One of the ways by which it does so is by creating “meaningful patterns.” This involves organization (pattern structure) and meaning (recognition). To do this the brain uses comparisons between a new visual perception and a series of models already in our mental storehouse. A search for similarity looks for a match to clarify the new visual experience.  After this match is found, the brain continues to look for more models to confirm the first finding.  It is a process of discrimination and of recognizing differences or unique qualities in our visual perception. This is why qualities of uniqueness always attract our attention (Myers 11, 13). The mind is stopped by the new visual experience and forced to search more. In a culture awash in visual imagery trying to catch your attention, the truly creative visual image that manages to stop you is a valuable commodity.

Out of necessity we pay attention to only a small part of the sensory stimuli around us. The number of messages that continually bombard the brain is so great that the brain must tune many of these messages out or we would cease to function – we would shut down. This ability to filter sensory experience is called “perceptual selectivity.” A problem a rises when this process of selectivity takes over and we begin to see only what we expect and want to see and remain unaware of those things we don’t expect. “Perceptual set” is the term given this thought pattern. This trait develops to a high degree in some people and governs how they react in nearly all circumstances. Wishing to retain stable norms, they ignore all that fails to conform to the norm and dismiss the unexpected as irrelevant (Myers 17). As an example a person may have developed the habit of always looking for the bad in people and circumstances. It can become such a mindset that the good in people or situations may be completely missed; the person has become so focused on finding and fixating on the bad. It is a way of creating a negative sense of reality with your thoughts by what you choose to perceive.

To review, perception is a process of forming patterns from information received by our senses, the information is compared to models already in our memory, and from this we make distinctions and evaluations. These perceptions govern much of what we do: what needs attention, what we can ignore, what we learn, what actions we take. At its most fundamental level perception functions as a survival activity. Perceptions are processed by the brain to protect us from harm, to obtain sustaining nourishment, and to maximize reproductive capacities (Myers 19). A key to remember is that as an artist or designer it is imperative to keep your mind to possible to new ideas, to let your perception be open. It is through exposure to new ideas, thoughts, and experiences that you will grow as an artist. To become caught in perceptual sets is to stagnate as a creative force.


The word “literacy” suggests being able to understand messages in a written language, to gain knowledge from the meaning of words and how the are put together. “Visual literacy” implies the ability to decode and understand visual messages. In the case of visual literacy the basic components are not letters or words but the basic elements of visual perception: line, space, shape, mass, value, color, and texture. How these elements are arranged creates the system from which meaning is drawn, as a sentence structure gives meaning and context to words. The arrangement possibilities for the visual elements are as infinite for human-conceived design as they are for nature’s diversity. The objective of the aspiring artist is to learn how to structure and manipulate these elements to achieve the meaning desired. The significance of the visual elements is in how they are used; that is, in the structure that is created – the design (Myers 4).

Visual literacy is no more universal than any other mode of communication. If anything it might have a smaller group of “literates” than most major languages. Those literate in the visual elements and their organizing are those who have been trained in either their appreciation or application. Nowhere is the smallness of this insider group more evident than in the appreciation of modern art, where many times the focus of the work is on the visual elements in their pure forms…the use of color for color’s sake, shape as pure shape, etc.  This “formal” use of the visual elements produces no meaning for the works outside the intrinsic value of the elements themselves and the value that the viewer brings to the work. To understand/enjoy many modern works, a knowledge and background in the visual elements is necessary: visual literacy. People lacking this literacy automatically judge such visual experiences as “meaningless.” The reaction can be as we discussed in visual perception: turn off, ignore, or even become hostile. An artistic elitist point of view sometimes snubs those who aren’t visually literate, who don’t know the “secret handshake.” This attitude makes about as much sense as snubbing someone who doesn’t speak Swahili. The fault lies not with the individual but with an education system that puts no emphasis on visual literacy.

The products produced by those who are visually literate have a major impact on all of us through our exposure to the mass media. But many people do not understand how this visual language produces what they see any more than they understand how physics put a man on the moon or how medicine created a vaccine for polio. The public is confronted with the end products of these foreign disciplines, but few understand the languages that create these products. There is no good reason for this widespread visual illiteracy. The language is easy to learn and offers many rewards.


Much of the study to become a visual designer or artist is involved in learning “how to see,” how to identify and structure the visual elements. Most of our lives we use our vision incidentally as part of a larger activity (Myers 18); we see but we don’t really look and think about what we see.

The ability to gain information from the perceptual experience could be termed visual sensitivity. A primary objective in studying art and design is to heighten this sensitivity, thereby increasing the stored information with which creative associations can be made.

In the technology driven world our society has created there is little doubt that people have an abundance of visual experiences.  The question is whether this experience is sensitizing or numbing visual creativity.

In 1953 one of the 20th Century’s finest artists, Henri Matisse, wrote:

Everything we see in our everyday life undergoes to a greater or lesser degree the deformation given by acquired habits, and this is perhaps especially so in an age like ours, when cinema, advertising, and magazines push at us a flood of images which, already made, are to the senses what prejudice is to intelligence.  The necessary effort of detaching oneself from all that calls for a kind of courage, and this courage is indispensable to the artist who must see all things as he did when he was a child.

(Honor & Fleming 639)

The flood of visual images mentioned by Matisse five decades ago has developed into a unending torrent. So prevalent is commercial, mass-produced imagery that its impact on would-be artists and designers is rarely contemplated; it is simply taken for granted. The permeation of our lives with what Matisse alluded to as visual “prejudice” is as much a part of our environment as the air we breath and the water we drink; both of which can also be polluted.

One of the most unnerving aspects of Matisse’s statement – his contention that we must learn to see as we did when we were children – refers to the innate visual innocence, excitement, and curiosity we had when we first began to explore our visual environment. But what are the children of today seeing? What is filling their visual memory banks? By the age of eighteen, students have spent more time watching television than doing anything else except sleeping (Liebert et. al IX). In this new age of computers and the Internet, the time spent glued to the monitor may now exceed that of sleeping for some children.

Television is a one-way experience. The viewer takes in sensory material and gives out little or none (Winn 4). It is a non-demanding activity in which the child viewer has no opportunity to discover strengths or weaknesses; where fantasies are supplied complete with auditory and visual components. There is no need for the child to create any component of the experience. Watching replaces doing, thinking, and touching. Passivity replaces activity (Winn 7). Individual experience is replaced with mass experience – experience that is being fed to millions of people at once. The sameness – the common experience, at best mediocre, at worst detrimental – becomes the child’s basic fund of mental associations from which we expect creative thought to arise. While there are more interactive aspects in electronic gaming and the Internet, it is yet to be seen how much creative thought is stimulated by these new time consuming activities.

The desensitization produced by technology transcends the visual and also deadens another critical aspect of creative thought: emotional sensitivity. Violence in mass media is probably one of the most widely researched facets of technology. Page after page was written in the sixties and seventies about television violence and its impact on youth.  The fear that detective and cowboy shows would incite children to aggressive behavior now pales with cable television, electronic games, and the internet bringing appalling, sadistic and gruesome imagery and behavior into homes a cross the country. Movie after movie and game after game attempts to be more grotesque than the last, and young audiences make profitable the simulations of unending mutilations. It is frightening to me that so many people enjoy and are willing to pay to see brutality and sadism. But beyond this fear is the consequence that the bombardment of visual violence can deaden sensitivity to the real violence that permeates our lives. Genocide in some far away country, the murder across town, and the child abuse next door are all accepted as part of everyday life.  Another change that electronic media is bringing to the potential artist is that of limiting the attention span.  Images flash before the eyes at a phenomenal rate -a major trend in music videos, film, and advertising. This steady stream of images traps the viewer because the mind is so busy making associations to gain an understanding of the flow that there is no time to break away – no time to think. A kind of passive habituation can develop in response to this visual barrage. As a result people so habituated find it difficult to concentrate on slow moving or static visual images such as paintings or sculpture. When asked to think about what they are looking at people can become very confused.  Looking and conscious thinking are no longer related activities.  Instead, when one looks at an image, explanation is given through audio or by the flow of successive images. Looking at images has become a passive part of life, not an experience that requires conscious or involved thought.

What will the impact of visual, emotional and attention-span desensitization be on the designers and artists of tomorrow? We might not have to wait until tomorrow to see some of the effects. The younger artists being promoted by the art world today grew up in the world of technology. Much of the work of these young artists falls into a category being called “post-modern,” a catchall term. One of the characteristics of much of this art is that it is “eclectic,” meaning that it borrows heavily on the past. There is a heavy emphasis among many young artists on using approaches and imagery they have seen to the extent of outright “appropriation” of previous art. It is a kind of passive approach to making art. The thinking and creative association that have made the visual arts a dynamic, visionary part of the 20th century seem to be on the decline. There are undoubtedly multiple reasons for this, but I believe one of the explanations is that our new artists are children of the technology era. The capability of creating new visual experiences has been lessened by the sameness of the mass experience.

My rather bleak assessment of technology’s impact is not shared by everyone. There are positive qualities that technology has to offer: educational experiences, as seen in public television; expanded choice, as seen in cable television; and the enormous access to information, as seen on the internet. It can be claimed that this access of information and potential audience gives the artist a vast resource to farm into creative expression. This is true only if both artist and viewer approach technology with an analytical eye. The problem is that little or no effort is given to teaching people how to see analytically, be it looking with or without technology. The illusions presented us are generally accepted as reality.  If they generate a profit, they are promoted; if they do not, they are eliminated.

In 1957 the scientist and environmentalist Rachel Carson wrote these words to parents:

Exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies around you. It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils, and fingertips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impressions.

For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we walk about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. (52)

The importance of youthful awareness is expressed in spiritual terms by Rabindranath Tagore:

When I was a child, God also became a child with me to be my playmate. …  The things that kept me occupied were trifling and the things I played with were made of dust and sticks. But nevertheless my occupations were made precious to me and the importance that was given my toys made them of equal value with the playthings of the adult. The majesty of childhood won for me the world’s homage, because there was revealed the infinite in its aspect of the small. … The infinite is within us in the beauty of our childhood…. (Tagore, TR, 286)

Tagore’s homage of the world was symbolized in his being the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. In this quote he is acknowledging that it was his ability to keep the insight and wonder of childhood that contributed to his success.

In 1955 Abraham Joshua Heschel expanded on the importance of the sense of wonder:

As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder. (41)

To open up our senses to our environments is to begin to experience wonder. It is not impossible to regain some of the openness and appreciation Matisse spoke of earlier in this section.  As students of art and design it is absolutely necessary to unclog the unused channels of sensory experience and purge them of the stereotypes stuck into them from years of mass media.  We are partially blind and we must learn to see again and also to think again. We can learn to make our own associations, clearing the path for the creative process.  This is not as difficult a task as one might think, it is based around learning to identify and analyze the visual elements – the alphabet of visual literacy. An awareness of color, line, shape, mass, value, texture , and space can be the first and most important step to unclogging the visual channel. Opening the sensory channels provides not only an unending reservoir of information for the artist; it also provides a richer experience of life for anyone interested.

People are becoming more aware that what they eat/consume becomes a part of them. The food we put into us becomes a part of us. If those foods contain poisons those poisons damage us. The same is true of mental consumption. Our minds are affected by what we put into them. If we fill them with violence, nihilism, stupidity, sexual excess, and greed, even in the form of entertainment, those qualities will become a part of our minds, a kind of poison in our minds. If on the other hand we fill our minds with beauty, love, knowledge, understanding, wonder, hope and gratitude, we will nurture ourselves to not only pursue productive lives but also happy ones. It is our choice what we fill our minds with and how that impacts us as human beings and artists. It is, and always has been, a difficult choice to make because much of the mental poison in our society is served up on very tempting and artistic platters. Many of us have become addicted to negative mental consumption, especially in the realms of violence and sexuality. This type of addiction is as difficult to overcome as what we think of as physical chemical addictions: alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, heroin, etc. The truth is that negative mental addictions are also chemical addictions, stimulating chemical reactions in our brains and nervous systems. As with all addictions, one of the best ways to overcome the habit is to replace it with other behavior that has more positive rewards. As artists and designers we have the wonderful advantage of using our creative talents to form these new behaviors with our art.

This is not a call to return to the “good old days.” The “good old days” are now if you choose to make them so. While we need to function within the culture and  technology of today, this culture and technology must not force us to abandon visual and emotional sensitivity. As artists and designers we have the great joy and responsibility of shaping not only our own perceptions but also those who come in contact with our work. It is up to us to shape the medium, be it paint, stone, advertising, or digital signals.

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