Ways of Seeing — by John Berger

In Design Theory on February 1, 2010 at 6:20 am

This is a fascinating book about how we see things. By expanding and elaborating ideas from the television series Ways of Seeing, John Berger described how different factors affect the way that we see things. These factors include what we know, what we believe in, cultural influences, present assumptions and the environment that we are in. He illustrated this by showing reproduction of famous paintings, explaining the fact that how we interpret these paintings are heavily influenced by our surroundings and our knowledge (or assumptions) of the corresponding time period when the paintings were created. And, since “the past is never there waiting to be discovered” (Berger, page 11), our interpretations may be entirely different from the painters’ intentions.

In studying the history of art, we learn the names and practices of famous painters, like Leonardo Da Vinci, Juan Miro, Claude Monet and others. These fine artists, through their brilliant works, gained fame and admiration by people through history. One question raised, as a graphic designer, is that do designers game fame to the same degree? In my opinion, a handful of them do, but they are certainly the minority. An obvious reason is that the appeal of fine arts travels far and wide. Most people, regardless of profession, enjoy fine arts, especially ones that have historical importance. One doesn’t need to be an artist to appreciate the extraordinary skills of these masters.

Design, on the other hand, is different. We are surrounded by designs, to a point that we don’t notice them any more. It would be difficult for most to name the designer of any everyday object, even for one that is as revolutionary as the Nintendo Wii. Also, designers in different design fields receive very different levels of recognition by the public. In our culture, we value fashion. As a result, most people can recognize at least a few names in the field. Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld are a few examples. These people are common household names because of our culture. Designers in other fields seem to be famous mostly within their respective fields. Certainly, many know of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and furniture designer Herman Miller. However, designers who enjoy such recognition are far and few in between. Any designers who have produced admirable work are likely to be recognized by their colleagues within their respective disciplines, like Paul Rand, Steven Heller and David Carson in graphic design, but not necessarily the public.

Another discussion that Berger led in this first chapter of his book is the context of which the paintings are in. He compared the effects between filmed and printed painting reproductions. If a painting is reproduced by film, the film leads the audience frame by frame to establish the film maker’s argument. A printed one, on the other hand, has no such advantage because the entire painting is there, every detail is printed, and how the viewer interprets it depends on the factors discussed above. To assist the viewers in understanding the reproduced painting, words are often employed, and the viewers’ interpretation of the painting is likely to be skewed by these words. The same thing happens in graphic design. Take all the advertisements that we see every day as examples. Companies hire writers to invent clever copy to accompany any graphic or photograph. These words help explain the intention of the advertisement, communicate the message to the audience, and, hopefully, sell the product or service to the consumer. As graphic designers, besides creating visually appealing designs, we must also be careful in choosing our words, consider the target audience’s background, the environment where the design work will be seen, existing competitors, and any other influencing factors in order to achieve the most effective design, bring awareness of our products or services to our community, so they do not fade into all the clutter that we are bombarded with every day.


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