Title: Visual organisation
Pages: 58 - 65
Author: James LaDue
Text: Visual organisation
by Fred Ashford
Manufacturers are increasingly recognising the fact that good appearance is important to a product's success. But while appearance is not the only thing the industrial designer is concerned with, it is the part of his job which is least understood. In the following article, the author shows how the designer tries to organise the forms of products to create order - and how his ability to do so derives from his understanding of visual perception.
Our understanding of visual perception -the way in which we see - remains incomplete, and the last 100 years have added little fundamental knowledge of a subject which still deserves some caution and humility in the writings of experimental psychologists, let alone industrial designers. The design of any object is obviously affected by many factors other than the aesthetic, but there is a moment in the design of even the most technically complex piece of machinery when it must be considered simply as an object, a visual entity, an arrangement of elements which will evoke certain feelings in the mind of an observer. Isolation of the aesthetic qualities is not always easy - it is inevitably bound up with many other factors - but it is necessary. With old rusted machines, there is usually no problem: the immediacy and the urgency of functional and technical considerations have departed, and we can see the machines simply as objects of visual interest pieces of metal sculpture. We should be able to see new products in the same way, and to arrange their forms so that they have maximum visual quality. And this requires some understanding of perception.
The nature of perception
That perception is not just a straightforward matter of seeing is proved by our normal view of life, in which everything appears to be correctly orientated in relationship to ourselves. The images of life on our retinas, however, are inverted and transposed left to right, like the image on a film in a camera. The correction is made by the brain and in this case it is a useful interpretation. But if the brain is upset by physiological or psychological disorders, it can make interpretations which make nonsense of the data received or which might be reversed with a return to more normal conditions.
Perception is thus complicated by the introduction of irrationality. To appreciate how this happens, it is convenient to see the perceptual system as a two-part one: the eye, like a camera, recording without understanding; and the brain interpreting the visual information fed to it by the eye against previous experience. For example, a child may receive the same visual information as an adult, but it has to build up a store of experience before it can usefully interpret that information and make correct estimates of scale, distance, speed and so on, to enable it to walk and to cross the road with safety. It is as though the sensory data fed to the brain by the eye is not in itself sufficient. To organise this data into understandable objects, the brain has to draw upon a memory store built up of past experience.
Because individual experience varies, different conclusions may be drawn by different people from the same sensory data; different conclusions may also be drawn by the same person from the same sensory data at different times. What evokes pleasurable associations with one person may do just the opposite with another, and what appears pleasurable at one time may not at another. We can grow to like or dislike an object, although the sensory data from it does not change.
There seems to be no limit to the measure of irrationality likely to enter into this process of interpretation. Like forms seem to be compared with like; a steel pressing may be associated with a blancmange shape, logical enough in that the characteristics of the blancmange mould could derive from a metal or glass pressing or a ceramic moulding. The mental association is not, however, with the hardness and stability of those materials, but with the softness and instability of blancmange. A curved column shape which has adequate structural stiffness is likely to be associated with supple organic forms liable to bend or sag under their own weight, or with objects normally made of rubber or wax. The feeling of instability may persist even though we know that the column is in fact a strong metal casting.
The brain ranges freely over its experience, and an innate understanding of the structure and kinetics of bodily parts is possibly its nearest-to-hand store of reference. It certainly seems to make many associations with the human form: parts of machines are referred to as the head, eye, lip, tongue, neck,
throat, body, arm, limb, knuckle, leg, foot, toe and so on. We find it easy to read human form into mechanical structures, but most of all we seem to require some measure of order.
The creation of order
A natural desire to create order is evident when we look at a random pattern. We try to find some rhythm in the repetition of certain elements, or we try to link the elements of a nebulous pattern of dots to form a stronger linear pattern. We interpret four dots as a square, or many equally spaced dots as an alternating pattern of rows and squares; we interpret a random pattern of stars as a cranked line, or as a more complex linear figure.
The underlying motive is always the same. We try to relate elements of similar size, shape or surface characteristic (de, colour anres/pub/COID/or texture) and to group them into simpler units, progressively grouping these units until we have structured a recognisable whole. Obviously, we do not want to overdo this. Too much order and lack of variety can be as stultifying as a complete lack of order is bewildering.
In this activity, we are clearly influenced by the relative visual importance of the various elements, and of shapes composed by them. In any given context, some seem to have greater visual value and to be more important than others. The varying demands upon our attention result in a kind of visual competition which seems inevitable, as it is not possible to have a form in which a single element is unity: such a form could only exist as an idea. Even relatively simple forms, like eggs, ball-bearings, matchsticks etc. have texture and colour, or they reflect colour, as well as their boundary shape. Most constructed forms are complexes of visual elements and mutual interference and animation is to be expected. This is what fine artists mean when they talk about the 'total plastic value' of a form: change some of the elements, like changing numerical values in a sum, and you get a different answer. There may not, of course, be any clear relationship between the visual importance of the various elements presented to the eye and the features with which they are associated, which may be functional, structural or ergonomic. Our desire for logical grouping is thus often thwarted, and our interest dissipated, or sometimes even dangerously diverted. For example, we are often presented with a multiplicity of sub-forms which we find difficult to read as a single, coherent form; or with eye-catching trivia in close proximity to important features.
The basic principles
So far the following points have emerged:
1 Feelings which can be, and often are, quite irrational cannot be excluded from perception.
2 There can be differences in personal interpretation of the same observed data and we must recognise the existence of, and the right to, personal interpretation.
3 Arising from 2, and seemingly in conflict with it, we can see that the more extensive, or alternatively the more
Optical illusion and mental delusion Two well known illusions demonstrate clearly the disparity between what we see and what we understand from what we see, and how reference to previous experience enters into this. In ~a, for example, the vertical lines are the same length, though the one on the left appears the longer. The real explanation of these illusions remains obscure. But with the Ponzo illusion, 1b, we can see a possible reason for the brain concluding that the uppermost horizontal line is longer than the lower one, although the eye records them as equal in length. The introduction of the oblique appears to suggest a plane in perspective (as in 1c); and whereas the lower, apparently nearer, line appears to occupy only roughly two-thirds of the width of the plane, the upper apparently furthermost line appears to occupy almost the whole width of the plane. And from its experience of sizeconstancy (ie, by knowing that a distant object appears smaller than a closer object of the same size), the brain believes that in 1c the upper rectangle outlined in black is larger than the lower white one. We expect two rectangles of the same size to appear as shown in white, and because of this, we conclude that the upper outlined in black must be larger.
Structuring a random pattern To aid recognition and understanding, the brain first introduces a linear link between the separate elements, then the form of an animal; the eye simply goes on seeing seven isolated stars.
Competition of visual elements To understand visual competition, take the concept of a completely blank space of infinite size so that we are freed from any distraction about the periphery of our field of vision. Then introduce a single visual element, say a straight line, our whole attention will be devoted to the line for there is simply nothing e/se to engage it. And if a second element, say another line, is introduced, our attention is then divided between the two elements in the ratio of their relative visual importance, which would be the product of their size, weight and position. The more elements we add the less important any single element becomes, and if the addition is made in a random, unorganised fashion, the pattern we are creating becomes progressively less meaningful. It seems that what we see at any one moment is unity, which must engage our whole attention. When unity consists of two elements of equal importance each receives 50 per cent of our attention, when the number of elements has grown to 100, each can only receive something like 1 per cent of our attention.
specialised, the store of previous experience, the more reliable, on the whole, are the conclusions likely to be drawn. In addition to recognising the right to personal taste, we must also recognise that some people are better able than others to structure their visual experiences. In all fields of human activity dependent upon perception, from pigeon fancying to art criticism, the opinions of some people are generally recognised as being better informed than those of the majority. (This is not because those individuals see any more than the majority, but because they have a more extensive or more specialised store of previous experience against which to interpret what they see.) 4 The act of perception demands the creation of visual order; only through order can the sensory data arising from the mosaic of retinal stimulation be organised into something which can be understood. This piece of knowledge is of great significance, because an awareness of the active organising power of the perceptual system enables us to arrange visual elements - sources of stimulation - into patterns which may reduce the efforts of seeing and understanding. 5 Assessment of visual importance is not just a matter of the eye recording certain relative values of area and tone. The brain may introduce other factors into the assessment, equating the visual relationship of the elements with some similar relationship drawn from its experience. It might see the elements as a visual balance, analogous to some actual mechanical or anatomical balance (it can readily postulate axes representing lines of connection or rotation) making it possible for it to find a balance between a small element and a large one. The eye alone simply records one element as being larger than the other. 6 The direction of interest to certain elements, or parts of an object, can only be achieved by attention to all the elements. It is pointless to devote great attention to the presentation of an important feature if it is surrounded by irrelevant visual distraction.
Elements of visual organisation
We often see machines and other objects, the forms of which consist of a number of badly integrated sub-forms, further complicated by numerous unrelated joint lines and a surface liberally garnished with a random decoration consisting of legend plates, controls and fastenings. What is happening in such cases is that there are simply too many elements engaging our attention, and there is no priority in their importance. A hexagonal nut might be receiving as much attention as an important display; an unimportant joint line might register more strongly than the delineation of an important work area. Such examples make clear the need for a measure of conscious visual organisation, but what can we take as the basis for this ? In the absence of more positive or reliable guidance, we can only draw largely on personal experience in
finding a basis for visual organisation. It is necessary to find elements which are meaningful, which are present in round form, and which can be conveniently abstracted. Experience suggests that these are the basic linear elements -the horizontal, perpendicular, oblique and curved lines. They can be seen as abstractions, but they are present in round form as outlines, highlights and changes of plane, and as visual axes, ie, lines which the brain introduces although the eye does not necessarily see them.
It would be absurd to attempt to attach any absolute values to these elements: like words and figures, their meaning and value can be altered by the context in which they are used. But whatever the context, some relative characteristics remain and reference to symbology will be found to support this.
The horizontal element Possibly because it is easiest when seeing to move the head and the eyes in a horizontal plane, it seems that the horizontal element is the norm; it demands the least effort, and the sense reaction is the least marked. Because of this, the eye seems to pass easily along such elements and, conversely, such elements pass easily before the eye.
In symbology, we find the horizontal line associated with such things as horizons, the earth's surface, the sign for substraction, the negative potential and the passive female element, all of which suggest a static condition or represent tranquil, passive values.
The vertical element Appearing as interruptions to the norm, vertical elements seem to demand greater attention, perhaps because of a necessary change of scan or because they are a welcome relief to the monotony of the horizontal. Whereas the horizontal is static, the vertical is charged with potential movement, and for this reason seems to hold the attention. Perhaps we expect it at any moment to lose its equilibrium. We find this element associated in symbology with rather more positive and dynamic qualities, such as the sign for the male element, man's aspirations, the symbol of heavenly power descending, and so on. It divides the linear, horizontal quality of time, and it converts the passive horizontal into the sign for addition and the positive potential, both more definite, active things.
The oblique element Perhaps because two sets of ordinates are involved, this element seems to demand greater effort than the previous ones, and to produce a stronger sense impression. Diagonal elements are dynamic and directional; with symbols, we find them associated with signs representing the sun's rays, lightning, and many important cross signs, such as the sign for multiplication.
The curved element This seems to make the greatest impression on the senses, possibly because not only are two sets of ordinates involved, but their ratio is continually changing and greater effort is needed to scan them. The curved line in the form of a circle was the most important symbol of all: being without beginning and without end, it
Associations with mechanical balance We are self balancing structures, and understand dynamic balance intuitively if not by direct analogy. Presented with disparate elements, we tend to imagine axes or lines of rotation, like the dotted line in 4a; or we seek to alter the value of the elements, as in 4b, in order to create a more satisfactory dynamic balance. If the value of B were 10 times that of W. for example, we would in lb have a visual balance which corresponded closely to our experience of mechanical balance.
Simplification of elements and concentration of interest 5a shows a panel layout in which too many features of equal visual importance are being presented. 5b shows the various elements grouped to form two principal areas of interest, one for the operating control and one for the setting-up controls. A scale of priority of visual importance has been introduced.
represented God, or eternity, as well as creation and fire, the first of the four elements.
Characteristics reflected by form
The general characteristics of these linear elements are reflected in the forms composed of them. Cubes and rectangular forms composed of what, for practical purposes, might be termed the two low-order elements, the horizontal and vertical, are not usually in themselves visually exciting, although their arrangement relative to each other, and the influence of the space between them, may make them so.
Forms incorporating the oblique element, like the cone, pyramid, diamond, hexagon and so on, reflect its more active and dynamic quality. Curvilinear forms incorporating the curved element are generally more interesting than others because of their more complex contours anres/pub/COID/or surface development; again, this must be qualified by their context. As human forms are curvilinear rather than rectilinear, in spite of Giacometti, associations with human form are inevitable, and perhaps because it is easier to identify these forms with ourselves, perception appears to be more rapid. Generally speaking, such forms seem to stand out more clearly than others. Obviously, a single rectangular form would stand out among a number of curvilinear forms.
The organisation of elements
Setting out to organise form implies that one has some concept of the type of form desired and the way in which to achieve it. But how do we know the type of form desired and what its characteristics should be ? Possibly the best thing to avoid in this connection is a concept of good or bad form. We are probably on safer and more fertile ground if we think of forms as suitable or unsuitable for certain purposes because almost any form, however improbable, will be found to be suitable for some purpose.
Guidance on the best type of form can arise from many things: its functional purpose, its structure, and the materials and methods by which it must be realised. To these influences can be added analogies with existing forms, which can be of an objective or an entirely emotional nature. Together, all of these influences contribute to the creation of characteristics combining the qualities which best express the purpose of the form.
The characteristics of form are to some extent self determining, a kind of chicken/egg situation, and reference to natural forms will reveal the connections between the form's characteristics and the whole form. This connection can be interpreted in terms of structure (de, how the forms grow); in
Basic linear elements - the horizontal, vertical, diagonal and curve - referred to in the text, and some of their variations.
Association of ideas and importance of context We associate the curve in 7a with things like fishing rods which we know from experience are strong and flexible. The curve in 7b is flaccid, and we associated it with plant stems, flexible hose and cable. It will not recover after bending and will finally collapse after a certain length. Similar curves in compression, however, have different associations-7d would be stronger than 7c. Neither curve should be seen as right or wrong: they are simply suited to different purposes.
terms of relationships with environment (de, how it has evolved and survived); and in terms of its relationship to forms of similar character. It will be found that certain arrangements of elements are characteristic of certain classes of forms. If one knows the type of form desired, the arrangement of the elements should follow as a natural consequence of the form's characteristic: used out of the context of their embodiment, the patterns become unsuitable and meaningless, just like words used out of context.
It is not possible to offer detailed guidance on visual organisation as there seems to be no formal or absolute way of arriving at a synthesis of all these influences. Guidance is available in abundance in the influences themselves, but it is a matter of interpreting the information presented to us. The experience, or memory store, against which the information is tested, can be intuitive or results from development and should enable the possibilities of certain effects to be foreseen. Once a possibility is seen, it becomes a practical matter to adjust sections and dimensions to establish it; once it is established, and bearing in mind the competing effect of other elements, it is usually clear how to remove from it, or play down, the effect of adjacent elements which by distraction might weaken it.
Form characteristic can be interpreted as product quality, and an optimum expression of product quality is advantageous in many ways. It can assist in indicating function; how the product is used, where the work goes in, where it comes out, which parts move, which remain stationary, and so on. It can assist ergonomically by indicating clearly the connection between the product and the operator or user. It can assist commercially by expressing qualities such as great precision, strength or lightness, which may have cost a lot of money or effort to incorporate. It can also assist in creating an intangible but immediately recognisable quality giving corporate strength and character to a wide range of products or activities.
A general principle
One basic aim in visual organisation is to create forms which are readily understandable: simplification is thus a good general rule, but like most generalisations, it needs qualifying. It would be absurd to think that all simple forms had virtue and all complex forms had none. Some forms are complex by nature, and that is their virtue. The aim should be to avoid complexity where it is without virtue - where it merely contributes to the efforts of seeing and understanding. Simplification enables the eye to scan the form quickly and with comfort, presenting the brain with the least equivocal information; it can rarely be overdone. In addition to colour, texture and the imperfections of making, there are usually surface breaks, fastenings and other external features to enliven the most basically austere form. There may indeed be some forms with large blank areas which need to be made more interesting, but usually a reduction of the spread of visual interest is what is needed.
The aim of simplification is to assist both the eye and the
Adjusting the balance of elements In 8a the form tends to be disrupted by a preponderance of vertical elements. Because these tend to hold the eye, they would produce a flickering, stroboscopic effect in motion, as suggested in the lower part of the diagram. 8b shows the balance of the elements altered in favour of the horizontal. This would result in a composition emphasising the linear, horizontal quality of the vehicle which would flow more easily across the field of view.
Correspondence of visual and mechanical balance Formal representations of mechanical constructions are very often aesthetically satisfying as well as presenting a satisfactory arrangement of the material elements. We find order and balance and potential movement. The lines of this conveyor-loader display the dynamic balance, poise and tension which we might associate with a bird in flight, a ballet dancer or a lunging fencer.
Organisation of visual elements This sequence shows the reorganisation of the visual elements of a machine. It must be emphasised that the final arrangement is not merely an external alteration of the first machine: the engineering specification of the second machine is quite different. The correspondence of general function and overall size is, however, sufficiently close to justify a comparison of visual characteristics. In 10a, the elements are not coherently arranged and do not restrict attention to important areas. In 10b, typical individual elements are picked out, and in 10c are isolated. 10d shows the elements rearranged to produce a more coherent form which restricts attention to important work areas and away from the less important supporting structure. 10e and 10f show how theabstract linear elements are reflected in the solid form.
brain. While not much seems to be known about eye comfort, it seems reasonable to suppose that scanning a simple, orderly pattern requires less effort and induces less discomfort than a scanning complex, disorderly one. This would seem to hold good even where the pattern remains passive; but some patterns are dynamic, containing strong directional elements deflecting the course of the eye. In motoring terms, the eye may not only have to do more mileage, but make much more effort to hold on to the road.
The effect of simplification on the brain appears to vary. Complexity alone does not appear to bother it; after all, its experience of complex patterns is as extensive as its experience of simple ones. It is complexity plus disorder which increases the effort of interpretation. Up to a certain degree of complexity, there appears to be some slight increase in effort whether the pattern is orderly or disorderly. Beyond that point, the effort will go on increasing if the complexity, there appears to be some slight increase in effort whether the pattern is orderly or disorderly. Beyond that point the effort will go on increasing if the complexity increases without order. But if the increase is orderly, the effort will not increase and may even decrease. Perhaps one of the most informative exercises one might undertake as an introduction to visual arrangement is to take any simple pattern, like a circle or square, and alter it, through any number of transitional stages, to a quite different form, or take it back to itself. This will illustrate a number of the points which have been made in this article, and will prove a useful guide to the whole nature of visual organisation.
The eye sees
four continous lines of equal length
continuous lines of varying curvature
continuous curved line
continous line of varyiong curvarture
continuous line of varying curvature
continuous curved line with markjed change of direction
the brain may suppose
a square frame, boundaries of a flat plane, elevation of a cube
a compressed circle, cushion shape tv screen
an ellipse, oblique view of a circle organic forms such as eggs, pebbles, fruit
a spade, flat-iron, bullet, shield, helmet
a spade, heart, base of table lamp or instrument stand
the eye sees
continuous curved line with more marked change of direction
continuous curved line with more frequent changes
continuous curved line with rythmic change of direction
continuous curved line with sharper changes of direction
the brain may suppose
a cloud, flame, flying bird, armourd headpiece, human head and shoulders
a cloud, part of a jigsaw puzzle, stylised human figure, a doodle
a worm gear-wheel, biscuit, plant-form, hole
a plant form, blot, irregular hole, soft explosion, amoeba
a plant form, amoeba, spatter, sparkle, hard-explosion, rent
the eye sees
radial arrangment of straight lines superimposed
irregular pattern of fragmented straight lines
area of random pattern of short lines
four continous lines of equal length
the brain may suppose
a plant form, sparkle , stylised star, crystal structure
a stitched pattern, moving particles, surface texture
a snowstorm, swarm of insects, surface texture, square of random pattern
a square frame boudries of a flat plane, elevation of a cube
Transition There is no great significance in the individual steps; their possibilities and numbers are infinite. What is demonstrated is an affinity between successive steps and an affinity, through increasing complexity to ultimate disintegration, between the first and last steps. At each step, however unlikely the form may be, it can always be associated with something from one's experience and is usually capable of several interpretations.