Posts Tagged ‘Laws of Seeing’

Laws of Seeing — by Wolfgang Metzger

In Design Theory on February 16, 2010 at 9:25 am

In the book Laws of Seeing, Wolfgang Metzger attempted to explain how we see and understand things, whether we are aware of the Gestalt laws or not. He provided in-depth explanation of several of the Gestalt principles like similarity, proximity, symmetry, closure and figure and ground. Through illustrations and examples, he related these laws to the way that the human eyes see things, how we are able to see the whole even though parts of the whole are invisible (closure), how we tend to organize similar things together (similarity and proximity), how we like symmetry and how we sometimes only see parts of the whole picture and ignore the rest (figure and ground).

Metzger also pointed out other factors that come into play as we form our perception. Some examples being the illumination on the object and its environment, the colors of the adjacent objects, the relative events taking place with the object against its background, and, most importantly, our own past experiences. In the examples, Metzger explained that if the illumination on the object is consistent with its background, we assume that there is minimal distance between them; also, objects placed adjacent to different colored background can appear differently (this took me back to my color theory lessons); a moving object against a stationary background is more visible and vise versa; and then my favorite phenomenon is that we form our perception based on our past experiences.

Why do we perceive things the way that we do? Often times, we make assumptions based on what we know. If the spatial relation between a house and a vehicle changes, we’d assume that the vehicle moved because a house is likely to be immobile. We also tend to order things to our liking. Two similar but unconnected objects placed next to each other where the space between them is occluded by another object, we’d assume that these two similar objects are connected because they are similar and therefore belong together.

laws of continuation

The connection between the orange squares are "invisibly present."

Then, Metzger tried to argue that our past experiences sometimes fail us. One of the examples provided was a picture of objects that we know to move, like boats, waves and clouds, with a house (an immobile object) in the middle. He argued that because of all the “moving” objects surrounding the house, the observers saw the house moving along with everything else. When I studied this same picture, perhaps it’s not the correct environment or distance, perhaps I knew what he was trying to prove, despite my repeated effort, I still saw the house as stationary and was not able to see it the way that the said observers did. Another thing mentioned in the book that I do not understand nor do I agree with is that the “ideal illumination comes from the top left” (Metzger, page 148). When I was younger, I used to always draw with the sun at the top left. But why? Who decided that that is where the “ideal” illumination comes from? Is it because of our culture that we tend to read from the top left? If yes, how about some Asian culture where people traditionally read from the top right? Do they have a different direction of ideal illumination? It would be helpful if Metzger explained this further.

Camouflage is another topic that caught my attention. Metzger devoted a fair amount of space for this topic because it is a phenomenon that affects how we see things. At first, he mentioned how we can blend with our environment by mimicking the movement (or lack of). If we remain stationary in a still environment (like in the woods) or if we move in an active environment (a crowd of people walking), it is likely that we become invisible to the observer. I have always known this and it makes total sense to me. Later in the book, Metzger explained another form of camouflage that I never considered and am now fascinated. He stated that animals have darker colors on the back and lighter colors on the underside because this evens out their body colors when illuminated from above, so the roundness of their bodies are lost and they, therefore, are not as visible. I used to have a maine coon (cat) which has very dark hair except for her belly. I have always accepted that that’s the way that she is. Now, after reading this book, it makes me wonder if this has anything to do with its Norwegian forest origin.

As I read this book, I found content that is consistent with another reading, Ways of Seeing by John Berger. Both authors agree that the way that we see things are heavily influenced by our knowledge, experiences and background, and the fact that our perception may be inaccurate compared to reality. Other previous studies that this book reminded me of are the various Gestalt principles that we have been studying through out graphic design training. It is important to understand these principles and how they affect the audience’s perception when planning our design work. In addition, knowing the audience’s background can also be helpful since we are all affected by our past. While it is impossible to get to know each individual and his or her past, careful and comprehensive market research can assist us in forming a general idea of what our target audience is like and what appeal to them. Such information is instrumental in creating effective designs and marketing campaigns.