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?

John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” was an eye-opener, no pun intended.  Despite having read only the first two chapters, I can already sense that this man knows what he is talking about.  He mainly focuses on art and images, describing the various perspectives and ways of seeing we experience.  My particular focus on this post is perspective itself, in the artistic technique sense.

Berger talks about how for most of history, paintings and man-made images had a particular viewpoint into which the viewer is thrust by the image creator.  When perspective is used to present the image, the creator is, without the viewer realizing it, making the viewer see things in a constructed manner.  The viewer, looking at things from the perspective desired by the creator, then understands the image and all its connotations the way the creator intended.  For example, if someone looks at a worm’s-eye perspective photograph of two men arguing, the photographer has made that person look at the subjects in a very psychologically-altering way.  The men may appear to tower over the viewer, and, ipso facto, appear more powerful and convey more energy than a simple, medium shot pose.  That is the intended effect.

Yet, not all images are intended for any particular person.  Take this image, for example.  Picture of Space and a NebulaIt depicts a vast, mysterious expanse of space, with a swirling nebula in the center.  But there is no camera effect, no sense that a particular person is looking at this, no perspective.  This contrasts with this astronaut image, which obviously channels the viewer’s eye in a certain way.  Astronaut Perpective PictureOpposite from the nebula picture, this places the viewer firmly right in front of the astronaut.  The idea that it is the viewer, and only the viewer, who is seeing this pervades.

As we can see, this singular viewpoint exhibited by the astronaut image is the most common type, found in most photographs and most paintings.  But the nebula-type image of ambivalent perspective is becoming more common.  One photographer, Katie Paterson, has decided to do some work to illustrate this concept of moving beyond a single viewer.  She has taken some images and sound clips of a glacier area, one example of which is to the right.  (For more, see Picture

When viewing Katie’s work and listening to the sound clips, it becomes apparent that she understands the idea of a broader-appealing experience, perspective-wise.  The stark, serene glacier images she presents, combined with the tranquil sound clips, make the viewer/listener feel as if they are there, quietly observing nature.  From this, we can gather that a multimedia presentation of something can add much more dimension to it, thus detracting from the single-viewer idea even more.  One does not feel like she crafted her compositions for him, but, rather, for no one in particular.