Seeing how “Ways of Seeing” was the topic of one of my earlier posts this quarter, it seems a fitting bookend with which to wrap up Design Theory.  I say this partially out of a sense of finality, but also partially in relation to the contents of the book.  It gave me a sense of mental completion to start with some of Berger’s concepts, look at a number of other design theories, and come back to the book at the end of the class.  Re-examining Berger’s theories after having looked at the likes of Gestalt and visual design principles gave me a slightly more refreshing spin on my views towards design.

As I mentioned in my “‘Ways of Seeing’ First Blawg,” Mr. John Berger writes of how we humans see the world in his book, and not just how we literally see with our eyes.  He talks primarily about how we perceive the world, and how what we see affects what we think.  Every even chapter is actually a “visual essay,” using images to steer the reader to think about the surrounding text chapters’ content.  The odd chapters discuss Berger’s theories.  Chapter 1 talks about how images throughout history have subliminally caused viewers to see things from the image’s perspective; chapter 3 discusses gender viewpoints, with men surveying and women being surveyed; chapter 5 goes on at length about oil paintings, photographs, and how we aim to possess what is contained in the image; and chapter 7 discusses modern publicity and how it causes us to think in terms of our future selves, spurring envy and dissatisfaction.

Though some others who have read this book disagree with what Berger has to say, I found myself continually trying on his theories as if they were different hats.  I didn’t disagree with most of it, but I also didn’t fully agree either.  I simply found them intriguing.  One chapter in particular which stuck out in my mind was chapter 3, which pertains to gender concepts and views on female sexuality.  The main idea of the chapter is that men and women have fundamentally different ways of seeing and being seen – men survey, while women are surveyed.  Berger asserts that a man’s social presence and the way people view him are dictated by external factors, such as what he can do for you and to you.  A woman, on the other hand, is viewed both by others and herself as someone to be viewed, and how she is viewed determines how she is perceived.

I can see why some people, especially women, may think this is sexist.  It could be argued that he is saying women are objects.  But I don’t think so – it seems to me that his postulations are strictly intellectual and come from analysis of a long history of gender portrayal in visual media.  Maybe those portrayals were sexist, maybe they weren’t, but his conclusions are just an attempt at understanding how people have viewed women throughout history, in paintings and photography.  I have the deepest respect for all people, especially women, but what he says makes sense to me.   A lot of women I’ve seen do behave like that, like how they are viewed dictates who they are.  Again, I’m not saying all women are like this, but a good deal of them in my experience are.  It just seems to be how they’re wired.  The unfortunate downside of this is the continued inaccurate portrayal of women in media, since most people take academic observations like Berger’s and interpret them to mean that women are meant to be sexualized.  Of course, this is a wrong interpretation, both demeaning and unfair to women.  Chapters 2 and 4 are both chock full of images of partially or completely naked women, but Berger is simply trying to get the reader to understand how society has been looking at women, whether it’s sexist or not.

Chapter 7 also stood out to me, but to a slightly more minor extent.  In it, Berger discusses publicity (or advertising), and how it, along with capitalism, is an obstacle to complete democracy since it causes everyday people to be unhappy and wanting.  My first reaction is that I like that idea, since I share similar sentiments.  My second reaction was that a lot of other people would get angry at such a statement, since, in their minds, anything that says capitalism is bad must, ipso facto, be bad and anti-American or whatever other bullshit they think.  Man, Mr. Berger sure causes a lot of misconceptions with his work, that’s for sure.  Let’s listen to what he had to say.

What Berger said exactly was that since advertising causes us to want something, our current self which lacks the thing envies our future self, which may have the thing and is thus glamorous.  Unhappiness results because we are in a continual state of envy and mental desire for something we don’t have.  Thus, we also exist in a more narrow mindset since our lives become dominated by this artificial desire.  Capitalism, which is based entirely on us buying each others’ things, is therefore completely reliant on advertising and the effects thereof.  Since Capitalism relies on something which keeps us in a state of mental unrest and limitation, it is inherently an obstacle towards complete democracy.  I’m going to have to agree with Berger there.  Capitalism has its upsides, like increased innovation from competition for one, but that fact itself also overlooks the underlying principle that this very competition is driven by the need for buying, and the need for buying keeps people in a mental rut which prevents them from being happy.  Perhaps this is a bit of a melodramatic conclusion on my part, but that’s what I’m getting at.  What I don’t understand is how people invariably link Capitalism with being a crucial part of what makes America so great, for this blind connection makes it hard to see the kind of things I and others like Berger are trying to say.  Ugh.

So, after reading this book and internalizing such concepts as are outlined above, I must say that any design I do in the future will be made with extra awareness in mind.  I may not even realize it when I’m doing it.  Yet when I make something in 3D for a game, or whatever kind of art I make, I’ll think “How does someone feel when they see this?  How does it change their perceptions, and how does it fit in with their preconceptions?”  This could very well affect my design, especially if the audience is female.  Many characters (again, especially female characters) in the world of gaming are designed by men for men, and this leads to an overabundance of virtual worlds populated with characters female gamers can’t necessarily relate to.  Maybe that’s one reason why most gamers are still male (though that percentage is not as large as it used to be).

As a designer, my personal sense of aesthetic style has always been reflective of my own tastes and personality.  A good deal of what I find artistically stimulating me makes its way into my work, particularly in the subject matter I choose.  Oftentimes when I am thinking about what to do for my next project, I turn to previous art or ideas that have inspired me in order to move forward.

Some of my favorite visual art is fantasy art, much of which consists of fantastical characters or grandiose landscapes.  The sheer imagination and skill that goes into many fantasy paintings continually floors me, and throughout the years I have begun to shape my work in a manner that reflects a fantasy feel.  I will also create fantasy characters or scenes as a habit, because when I’m creating them I feel personally satisfied.  Another major source of inspiration is landscapes in general.  While many of these may be fantasy, I also immensely enjoy a mountain scene, waterfall scene, or other dramatic landscape.  Perhaps that’s why I like Environment Art and want go to go in that direction.

Fantasy literature has also been a huge source of inspiration for me, since it fuels my imagination just as much as visual art.  When I was in high school, many of my stories would follow the theme of a medieval hunter-type guy or something along that vein, and now, as I progress with my artwork, those same sentiments still run strong in my artistic bias.  If someone asked me to create a scene out of the blue, a medieval forest would probably be at the forefront of that which popped to my mind.

Also, on a more minor note, I love cultural art, particularly Asian art.  My bedroom is decorated entirely in black-lacquered Chinese-inspired furniture, and I do love to create Japanese-themed 3D props from time to time.  It’s not as major as fantasy art, but it still affects me.

Overall, with these visual and mental stimuli to guide me, along with my naturally curious and eclectic nature, the artwork I create generally has a polished, yet colorful and creative feel to it.  I only hope to continue to refine and upkeep my sense of style as time goes on.

One of the most musically creative eras in history is that of Progressive Rock, or Prog Rock, which reached its peak in the mid-1970s.  It was a “mostly British attempt to elevate rock music to new levels of artistic credibility,” oftentimes focusing on complex, layered compositions with a symphonic feel.  Classical instruments were introduced and incorporated into the traditional rock sound, resulting in a new blend of guitar, piano, synthesizer, organ, and other instruments that is far and away some of the most creative, musical music I have ever heard.  Singles existed, but many Prog Rock bands used the album format extensively for their work.  It allowed them to have longer, more crafted songs, and many times to tell a grand, overarching story with their lyrics.

The Progressive Rock scene developed from the Psychadelic Rock movement in the late sixties, which was already expanding and exploring the boundaries of rock during its time.  Pioneering Psychadelic Rock albums included Freak Out! by the Mothers of Invention and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Slightly later, in 1969,  King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King helped to lay a solid foundation for Prog Rock to come.  In the early 1970s Prog Rock reached its heyday, with bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer catapulting it into a commercial force.  For a number of years, until the late 1970s, Progressive Rock songs and albums routinely topped the charts; that is, until people began to turn to the newer Punk Rock movement, which developed as a sort of backlash against the elaborate, sometimes seemingly pretentious nature of Progressive Rock compositions.  Many of the bands sadly had to change their sound in order to survive, which is, in my opinion, one of the greatest tragedies to befall the world of music.

I will always be fascinated by and in love with Progressive Rock.  If I could, I would make a bumper sticker that says “There Is No Substitute For Progressive Rock.”  My favorite band of all time is the 1970s-era Genesis, which is so drastically different from its 1980s-era pop-rock incarnation that sometimes I can hardly believe it’s the same musicians playing.  When I listen to their music, or other Prog Rock bands’ music (such as Yes, Rush, some Pink Floyd, and ELP), I feel a certain satisfaction in my soul, a resonance that is unmatched by any other music.  I hear the amazingly creative keyboard solos, the engrossing stories told by the lyrics, or the complex, intricate guitar work done by these musicians and I shake my head in sadness that people can stand to listen to anything of lesser quality these days.  These were real musicians.  They were oftentimes classically trained, such as Genesis’s Tony Banks on the piano.  They knew how to craft lyrics and sound in such a way that pushed “rock’s technical and compositional boundaries.”  They weren’t doing it for the money or superficial fame like today’s artists (well, most of the time) – they were in it to create damn good music.  And they succeeded, at least for a good decade.  As M.C. says, “Probably very few creative persons are motivated by money.”  Can’t agree more on that point.  If you’re in it just to make money and get famous like almost everyone today does, you’re not really creative.

My Favorite Album Ever - Genesis' Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

Yet, despite all of the sheer musicality and brilliance I associate with this era of rock, it couldn’t have happened the way it did were it not for the world events which shaped the musicians.  This is very interesting to me.  When I read M.C.’s opinion that “Favorable convergences in time and place open up a brief window of opportunity for the person who, having the proper qualifications, happens to be in the right place at the right time,” (Creativity p. 330) I pondered on it a bit.  Is this really true?  Partially.  I think it is more of a mix of what he said and the intrinsic creativity of the individuals who made the music.  Both Nature and Nurture.  Yet Nurture can be huge, and I’m not disqualifying it in any way.  The Prog Rock movement, ultimately, traces its roots to, you guessed it, WWII.  After the war, rock and roll found a new, booming culture in the U.S. and the UK in which to flourish, or at least flourish in the stupid “bubble-gum” rock sort of way.  This eventually matured in the sixties and, along with new counter-culture ideas, gave way to Psychadelic Rock and then Progressive Rock.  The artistic ideas and boundary-pushing nature of Prog Rock was a sort of reaction to the post-war June and Ward Cleaver mentality, in some ways.  In other ways it was a fueled by a desire to take Rock and make it an art form, to bring it to a higher level than just “rocking out.”  Just some more reasons why I love it so much.

Culture-wise, Prog Rock made a sizeable impact in the U.S. and Europe.  I know that not all of it was good, either (no category of music is perfect), but so much of it was good that a generation of people was given a better appreciation of music.  If I am playing any sort of classic rock at my work (Prog Rock included), a large number of customers comment on how much they like and remember it.  Hopefully they will pass this on to their children, as my mom did to me, and at least some people out there will have the guts to like good music instead of the non-music garbage pop which is popular in this day and age.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Thirteen:  The Making of Culture. In Creativity: Flow and the
Psychology of Discovery and Invention (pp. 317-342). New York, NY:
HarperCollins Publishers.

(Note:  This was one of the discussion board posts from my Psychology of Creativity class in Fall ’09.  I just now decided to post it here for grins.)

Though I have already touched upon Gestalt design concepts earlier in this quarter, I would like to go back for a moment and look at it in a bit more detail by itself now.  Gestalt is probably one of the more important design principles with which any designer worth his salt should be familiar.

As a dictionary definition, it is “a structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts,” (Merriam-Webster).  Yet this is not the only way of looking at Gestalt – there is also a branch of psychology that looks at Gestalt to understand how we see and interpret things.  Max Wertheimer, a noted Gestalt theorist, had this to say:  “‘There are wholes, the behaviour of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole. It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes'” (  Additionally, “it is the total concept of the item being created – rather than just thinking of the separate pieces that make up the item” (

To be more concise, Gestalt is the idea that the sum of an object’s parts is greater than the whole.  The word itself is a German word literally meaning “shape” or “form.”   The major principles upon which Gestalt is based, that apply both to the design and to the psychological definitions, are Proximity, Similarity, Continuation, Closure, and Figure and Ground.  As one can imagine, Gestalt principles have a huge impact on how we see images, how we perceive images psychologically, and, in the case of applied design, how we decide what to buy.

Here is my example of an image demonstrating some Gestalt design principles:

20 Extra Points of Gestalt Goodness - Mmmmmmm

This demonstrates both Closure, since our minds can complete the letters despite the interruptions, and Proximity, since we still can read the whole word as a whole.


As the world becomes increasingly globalized, cultures that had been isolated from each others’ customs for thousands of years are quite suddenly thrust into economic and social cooperation with each other.  The primary motivator, of course, is money, so thousands of businesses and corporations must now learn how to deal with each other and how to sell their products in other countries.  Designers of these products and services are among those at the forefront of this change.  One of their major challenges is to create compelling designs, yet make the images and colors they use culture-neutral, or universal.  Quite a challenge, if one is not educated on some cultural sensitivity in his design field.

This is a very important concept for me personally, as well.  As a prospective 3D artist at a game company, I will create work that will be received by gamers the world over.  Games are truly a world medium, with Japan, North America, and Europe being the three major markets, but people from Brazil to India could also very well play my game as well.  I would not want to be the guy who created a character whose coloring was offensive to a person from another (read:  non-American/Western) culture.

Anyhoo, allow me to provide an example of a visual icon that represents completely different ideas in two distinct cultures.  I give you the rat.

Chinese Rat Symbol

Generally speaking, the rat is generally not a respected animal in the West (Europe, America).  This probably has to do with its association with disease, the Black Plague, and its general habits of hanging around filthy areas.  However, in China, the rat is a respected creature, so much so that it is one of the twelve animals of the Zodiac.  Qualities associated with rats in that country include creativity, honesty, and generosity – a far cry from the revulsion felt by Westerners.  Thus, when a rat is depicted visually like in the above image, people from these two different parts of the world will have different reactions.  An American will feel repulsed and possibly squeamish, while a Chinese person would most likely look at it like just another respected animal.

Yet images aren’t the only things that can differ in their cultural meaning.  The colors themselves can illicit varied reactions from different cultures, and the differences can be surprising.  For instance, purple invokes mourning or widows in Thailand, whereas in the West it is associated with royalty.  Quite the difference.  A lead character with elements of purple in his armor might be unintentionally thought to be a depressed kind of guy, were that character’s game released in Thailand.  In the rest of the world, the color might reinforce his leadership status.

Advertisements are another realm where cultural ignorance might cause problems.  In April 2008 Absolut Vodka ran into a snafu with one of its ads, which was intended for a Mexican audience:

An Absolut Reconquista?

While Absolut was simply trying to tap into Mexican nationalism in order to sell its brand, the company didn’t think about how a lot of Americans would react when they saw the ad.  It was never released in the U.S., but, nevertheless, media outlets picked it up and many Americans were offended.  To them, it looked anti-American and invoked the idea that Mexico wanted to take back some American land.  Read the original article here for more information:

This is just one example of a cultural bungle that is a result of confusion with the globalization of design I mentioned earlier.  Absolut, a Swedish company, simply looked at a historical perspective that they thought would help their vodka sell better in Mexico, while neglecting to look at how another culture could view that same issue.  Had they done a little research and test-viewed their ad before finalizing the design, they might have found out the implications and avoided this whole issue.  It was just a simple mistake, but it might have cost them some sales in the U.S.

In today’s cultures all around the globe, signs are necessary for every person to function well within society.  Most signs are taken for granted because they are needed and are always assumed to be there.  If people actually took the time to study the different types of signs, they’d find out some interesting information about them.  Signs can be broken down into three categories: symbols, icons, and indexes.

Symbols are visual representations of, most often, abstract ideas or invisible concepts that don’t have any direct connection to the symbol that represents them.  Symbols’ meanings are often learned through cultures and are not immediately grasped by most individuals.  The meanings are assigned to the symbols by people or cultures where the symbols themselves do not often have those inherent meanings.

Icons are visual representations as well, but, unlike symbols, they represent ideas, physical processes, or physical objects directly.  Ranging from people being icons for a category to which they directly relate to small, simple visual pictures that represent a software program, icon meanings are found within their own visual display.

Indexes are visual representations of actions or complex messages that need to be expressed in a very simple way in order to be easily understood at a quick glance.  Like roadway signs and the cautionary signs seen in front of parks, indexes directly illustrate a message to the viewer to take some kind of action.

Examples of symbols:

Rolling Stones Logo - Kristi

Russian Communist Symbol - Duncan

All-Seeing Eye Symbol - Nick

Examples of icons:

Traffic Light Icon - Nick

Coffee Cup Icon - Duncan

Phone Service Icon - Kristi

Examples of Indexes:

Radioactive Warning Index - Kristi

Shark Zone Warning Index - Nick

Slip Carefully Warning Sign - Duncan

My Renderings:

Imaginary Army Symbol

Imaginary Army Symbol

Games Icon

Beware of Quicksand Index


Icon: Traffic light sign:

Icon: Coffee cup:

Icon: Radioactive symbol:

Symbol: The “All-seeing eye”:

Symbol: Russian Communist sign:

Symbol: Rolling Stones logo: John Pasche (Initial Designer)

Index: Shark-infested waters:

Index: Engrish sign:

Index: Phone:

For this post, I did a little research about accessibility in design.  It is surprising how very little attention is payed to disabled people, despite the fact that there are millions of disabled people out there who would like to enjoy the same technology the rest of us do.  The first thing I did was listen to a KUOW podcast from a local Seattle radio station, in which a lady named Wendy Chrisholm gives an interview about Web accessibility.

In the interview, Wendy talks about how she got started in web accessibility, and how passionate she is about it.  She began by tutoring a blind student in college, and this got her to thinking about helping disabled people.  She went on to get into web development, but she never forgot her ideas for accessibility, so she wrote some guidelines for making websites accessible.  These actually ended up getting published as the standards for international web site development.  However, with the exponential rise in website complexity, these guidelines have sadly not been fully utilized by the decentralized internet community.  Wendy demonstrated on the local Seattle Metro website how even basic screen reading tools could not succeed in aiding a disabled person because the website itself was so convoluted in its design that the reader would only read back unintelligible garble.  She concluded her interview with words of advice to include accessibility in the entire web development cycle, rather than tacking it on as an afterthought.

While Wendy’s story with the world of web design accessibility was rather optimistic, it still showcases the fact that disabled people are regretfully neglected most of the time when it comes to design.  In my field of video game design, accessibility is not a term one hears often.  Fortunately, this is not for lack of caring, but rather for lack of knowledge, since disabled gamers make up a relatively small proportion of the gaming population.  However, this percentage is growing by the day, and demands for accessibility in video games continues to grow along with it.  In fact, according to an article on Gamasutra, a full 57% of computer users were likely or very likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology in 2003, and this number is projected to increase every year.  That was in 2003!  So what are game developers going to do about it?

When one looks at the medium of video games, accessibility is not high on anyone’s priority list.  Highly polished graphics and play mechanics are always the most important things for a new game, since they make a game sell, but these are not conducive to anyone with a visual or even auditory impairment.  Accessibility just isn’t that sexy to develop for.  Also, many companies don’t view accessibility as cost-effective, since they have a limited time frame and budget in which to work.  It wouldn’t be worth their while to put in extra development effort for a tiny percentage, right?  Unfortunately, these fears of a company are really unfounded.  As I said earlier, there are literally millions of disabled gamers out there who want to play.  That’s a big enough market, I’d say.  As one example, a developer for disabled gamers, Reid Kimball, created a version of Doom III that had closed captioning, and it has been downloaded over 19,000 times.  There are people out there who would enjoy an accessible game, but they haven’t been tapped yet.

There are some things that can be done for impaired gamers, and many of the solutions are not too difficult.  One of the most obvious ways of helping is with text in a game.  Give the option for closed captioning for hearing impaired people, and for visually impaired people give them the option to increase the size of the text.  Simple, yet elegant.  There might also be color-blind gamers out there, so a quick fix for that would be to use a color palette that is color-blind friendly, or to use shapes or other elements such that the player does not have to depend on color to proceed with the game.  For the rare mobility-disabled gamer, special controllers may be developed to enable them to have non-standard controls for a game, such as a controller that utilizes chin movements or breath instead of complex button combinations.

Though these solutions might seem like they could be incorporated easily into game development, the fact of the matter is that accessibility remains a largely ignored element in the game design process.  Most developers simply don’t know enough to improve their games’ accessibility, or those who know may just not be motivated enough to change anything.  This, to me, seems like a sad thing for everyone involved.  If the developers just realized how many potential disabled gamers there are out there, they might pull in a lot more money than they realize.  Of course, if they did this, then players formerly barred from playing games due to an impairment would be able to enjoy a game like everyone else, which also might alleviate feelings of being an outsider.  It’s a win-win situation, but right now no action is being taken.  Come on, it’s a no-brainer!  Developers and gamers alike have much to gain, and I feel that the developers should put much more effort than they are into accessibility.  I am optimistic, but it’ll take time.  As they say, though, good things come to those who wait.  Guess we’ll just have to wait a little longer until developers like Reid Kimball get the ball rolling.  Roll on, Reid.


Design Research 02/08/10

February 17, 2010

Group E:  Kristi, Sylvia, Duncan, Nick
Topic:  Cross Tensions, Bridging Devices

Our subjects for this little in-class research project were Cross Tensions and Bridging Devices.  The definitions for these terms were a bit difficult to nail down during our library research but, by looking at various images in books and on the internet, we were able to piece together a rough estimation of what each of them means.

Cross tensions could have multiple definitions.

  • Criss-crossing or interweaving lines causing tension in an image.  More specifically, a series of horizontal lines with strong, interrupting vertical lines overlapping them.
  • Architectural design element using criss-crossing beams as designs

One example is as follows: (from Design Basics)

Cross tension is an element utilized in design to create, well, tension.  Under normal circumstances, horizontal lines imply stability, while vertical lines imply strength.  When overlapped in such a jarring fashion, or tilted to form crossing diagonal lines, tension is naturally created.

Here are some examples of Cross Tension in art/print:

On Points — Wassily Kandinsky

Circles in a Circle – Wassily Kandinsky

Red In the Net — Wassily Kandinsky

Suprematism — Kazimir Malevich

Video Game Example:  Donkey Kong
Nick MacMichael’s Cross Tension Example

Kristi Walker’s Cross Tension Example

Next up we have Bridging Devices.  They can be roughly defined as:

  • An element used in painting or design to bridge an idea or theme
  • A horizontal element in an image that connects or bridges multiple vertical elements
  • An element in architecture that bridges two disparate elements of the building/buildings

One example of architecture is this image, which uses crossing arches to bridge two different buildings: (from Design Basics)

And…more Bridging Device examples:

Red Cross on Block Circle— Kazimir Malevich

Suprematism No. 50 — Kazimir Malevich

Sylvia Yu Bridging Device Example (also has Cross Tensions going on here)

Duncan MacMichael Bridging Device Example

Video Game Bridging Device Example:  World of Goo



  • Design Basics — by David A. Lauer/Stephen Pentak
  • Design Basics — by David A. Lauer
  • Making and Breaking the Grid — by Timothy Samara
  • Principles of Two-Dimensional Design — by Wucius Wong


While I trudged through Wolfgang Metzger’s exceedingly dense book, Laws of Seeing, I came to the increasing realization that we humans take what we see for granted.  When we look at a bird in a tree, or a pencil lying in between some books, or a caterpillar on a leaf, there are numerous forces at work within our eyes and minds that dictate what we see.  We just don’t realize it.  This subconscious world of seeing Metzger writes about is based on the laws of Gestalt.  As I mentioned in my previous post, Gestalt is a German word akin to the concept of “wholeness” or “shape.”  It is how we perceive things visually.  The sum of the parts is greater than the whole, so to speak.  Metzger structures his book such that each chapter explores a different aspect of these laws, from Proximity to camouflage.  It is quite heady, but helps make one more aware of the world around us.

Metzger was one of the Gestalt theorists in Germany, a group of psychologists who decided to analyze why see what we see.  They were quite an intellectual group, whom I can imagine sitting around for hours discussing various aspects of Gestalt.  Riveting, I’m sure.  This mode of thinking is quite evident as one reads Laws of Seeing, since Metzger methodically goes through each chapter in a very patient, explanatory manner, as if he were discussing it with a colleague.  The book is loaded with pictorial examples of the subjects, which aids much in comprehension.  The first few chapters deal with basic Gestalt principles, using mostly 2D examples to illustrate his points.  He explores Proximity, which is how our brain organizes shapes based on how close they are to each other; Closure, which is how our brain can finish off an object despite parts of it missing; Similarity, which is how we organize objects based on how similar they are to each other; Figure and Ground, which is how we perceive “whole” shapes versus their background; and, finally, Continuation, which is how our brain can finish off or follow an incomplete image, if enough visual clues are given to continue the shape in a new direction.  Later chapters explore more complex Gestalt ideas, such as camouflage, spatial perception, and how angles of light can affect what we see.

This may not sound like bedtime reading to most people, but I did find some chapters particularly fascinating.  Maybe it was just that those chapters were written more accessibly.  The first chapter into which I became truly engrossed was chapter five, concerning camouflage.  In it, Metzger goes into great detail about how different types of camouflage work throughout the animal kingdom.  It was here that I truly realized how universal Gestalt is.  Other animals are affected by it, too – animals most people would dismiss as “unintelligent.”  If a particular kind of caterpillar bends its body in the shape of a twig, using light color on its bottom to look like the sky, it will actually bend its body to match where light is coming from, to keep up its camouflage.  The caterpillar couldn’t exactly do calculus, but even its most basic survival instincts rely on Gestalt principles humans took thousands of years to formally recognize.  Another example is the cuttlefish, which uses highly complex skin pigments to camouflage itself, relying on Similarity with its environment to avoid predators.  I find it simply astounding how such “stupid” animals use Gestalt to their benefit.  Most humans aren’t even that smart.

As an aside, thinking about the theories of camouflage Metzger puts forth made me more conscious of my own 3D work.  At one point, an acquaintance of mine who is in the gaming industry told me that, at that time, the work of mine that he saw didn’t stand out enough.  In one of my 3D scenes, he said, the props’ and the ground’s colors were too subdued, and blended in with each other more.  Now, after reading chapter 5 of Laws of Seeing, that makes sense.  I wasn’t using enough contrast of color in my design, so, by the law of Similarity, the objects looked too much like their environments.  I have since attempted to remedy this, and keep it in mind at all times when I’m texturing an object.

The other chapter which stuck out in my mind was chapter six (hmm, perhaps Metzger was hitting his stride about this time in the writing process).  Here, Metzger discussed how tangential vs. diffuse light can affect what we see.  Any photographer can tell you this as well.  Light from an angle will naturally hit all the grooves in an object, making something seemingly smooth, like paper, look rough.  It makes for more dramatic shadows, and can bring out subtleties in objects which enhance its details.  This can also create optical illusions.  As an example of this, Metzger uses a topographical map, one version of which is flat, and one version of which is physically bumped to create the illusion of terrain.  When the light comes from the upper left, valleys on the bumped map which are parallel to the direction of illumination appear flatter than they really are, since they are receiving more direct light.  On the original, lined topographical map, this illusion is not there.  Upon conclusion of this chapter, I actually stopped and stared off into space for a bit, pondering how light does indeed affect how we see things.  Like I’ve been saying all along, the effects of light are usually unconscious for people, unless they’re artistically-minded.  The lighting of a building is a whole science unto itself, and the lighting of statues in museums is also a unique art form.  It really does change the way we look at something.  For an object like a statue, the light may be slightly diffuse, so as to emphasize the statue’s form instead of its imperfections.  Hmm.

Again, I thought about my 3D work when I read this.  Since lighting is a key aspect of level/scene design, it is crucial to understand how tangential light can make an object appear different from a direct light.  In fact, many professionals light their scenes before applying textures, to know if a particular object will be washed out or not.  This affects how they create the texture.  It’s subtle, but it can save work and make for a more realistic scene.

So, after having read this rather long, intellectual work, I can now say that my awareness of all these things has been heightened.  At the very least, if that’s all I can say even ten years from now, then Metzger’s done his job.  I’m not a psychologist, but, as a designer, Gestalt will factor heavily into my daily life.  I might re-do a texture for an object or re-work a scene’s composition because I realize that, from a certain angle, Gestalt rules have been violated.  Camouflage in particular is relevant to me at this stage in my career (trying to get into the video game industry), as I mentioned earlier, but all the principles will come in handy in the future.  To be honest, I won’t remember the vast majority of the details.  I probably won’t even remember all of the principles of Gestalt.  But I will incorporate them into my design work flow, which will help bring my work to its highest potential.

For this post, I performed an experiment on my sister and two friends.  No, it wasn’t that kind of experiment.  I’m not a genetic scientist or anything.  Rather, it was a test of Gestalt principles.  For those of you who have not encountered Gestalt, it is a German word meaning, roughly, “wholeness” or “shape.”  It is how we see things and make sense out of them visually.  There is an entire psychological study dedicated to Gestalt that is far beyond the scope of this post, but the most pertinent Gestalt concepts we will examine are Grouping and Closure.  Grouping is the tendency of our minds to organize various visual stimuli into coherent groups, despite all other dissimilarities the objects/shapes might have, whereas Closure is when our minds can finish off incomplete shapes given enough information.  Both of these are evident in the main focus of our experiment here:Grouping is the principle on which the experiment is based, for the most part, because the black blobs which constitute the image actually start far apart and are randomly shaped.  They would appear completely unrelated.  I, the experimenter, clicked a button which caused them to move together until they formed the above picture.  It took twenty steps to achieve the final picture.  I did not tell the person what it was, but asked them to tell me what they saw at any time as I slowly inched the pieces closer together.

For the experiment itself, my *victims* were shown two different series of images, each of which was followed by our Gestalt image.  The first set showed people in various environments, and the second set showed different four-legged animals.  Since the final image was a horse and rider, which the *victim* didn’t know, I surmised that the purpose of these fronted images was to unconsciously imprint the person’s mind into seeing different results.  If they couldn’t make out the horse after seeing the images of people, perhaps they could see it after seeing the animals.

The results, in reality, did not fit this assumption.  My sister, the creative type of the bunch, saw a smiling face on the fifth step, with an open mouth.  She actually said she saw a bunch of faces, which makes sense to me because, as a creative person, her mind could rapidly analyze the dots from as many angles as possible.  It also made sense because she had just seen pictures of people, so their faces were still floating around in her subconscious.  This was what I suspected; however, after seeing the pictures of animals, she still saw the face, and on the same step as well.  I had to stop to think about this.  Going in to the experiment, I had presumed the animal images were meant to assist in seeing the horse.  What my sister’s results said to me, though, was that the initial impression from the images of people was too strong, so she couldn’t see anything else after that.  The first impression is the most important, as they say.

The next person, a co-worker and friend, again stopped me on the fifth step.  This time, though, she said she saw a snowman’s face.  While this was consistent with seeing faces, like my sister, the fact that she saw a snowman‘s face signified that she was a much more shape-oriented person.  Not only was she looking for an overall picture, but, at the same time, the odd shapes of the middle black dots reminded her of misshapen coals of a snowman’s eyes, so she went on that.  And, again, she could not see anything different the second time.  I wonder about that…

The final person was another friend.  For him, it took a bit longer to see anything, but on the thirteenth step he stopped me and said he saw a man’s head and shoulders.  I had to look to see that, but it became evident when I looked at the left-most dot, the horse’s mouth, as the nose sticking out.  This was again different in that it was no face, but it nevertheless was still a person.  One thing remained constant, though, which was that he couldn’t see anything different after the second set of animal pictures.

After looking at these results, I have to reverse my first thought about what people would see.  When I started, I believed that, after failing to see the horse the first time, the images of animals on the second set would encourage the participants to see the horse that time.  This proved wholly incorrect.  I started to analyze what was happening after my sister, but, upon completion of all three experiments, I am now convinced that preconceptions and prejudices are much more important than anything seen immediately before the Gestalt image.  None of the participants saw anything to do with animals, despite the best efforts of the creators of this experiment.  First, as I found out, the pictures of people made a stronger first impression than predicted, and it could not be shaken loose by the time the second set came around.  Second, and more importantly, we are already conditioned to seek out images of people and faces more than anything else in our lives.  From the time when we are babies, recognizing and identifying human faces and forms has been ingrained into us.  It’s a survival instinct.  Thus, when faced with an ambiguous image like the horse above, and we don’t know what we are supposed to be looking for, it is only natural for our blindly groping mind to pick out something resembling a human (or a snowman face).  This was the most important lesson I learned from this experiment.  When we don’t know what we’re supposed to do, our minds naturally fall back on what we know, and what more do we know than our fellow humans?  Fascinating.  No wonder I always see weird faces when I stare at the patterns on the ceiling plaster.

Of course, some people see rabbits and dragons.  But that’s just a figment of their imagination.  Isn’t it?