⨳   05 Nov 2021

What We Do When We See

What does it even mean to design when perception is reality? Do we all ever see the same thing?

⚐   Christopher Butler is a designer living in Durham, NC.


In, Visual Intelligence, a wonderful book about seeing and clarity, Amy Herman begins with the story of Derreck Kayongo.

Kayongo had just stepped into the shower in his hotel room when he immediately noticed that the soap he had opened and used the night before had been replaced with a new bar, sealed in a small cardboard box. He carried the bar down to the front desk to ask for confirmation that he wouldn’t be charged for it. The concierge assured him that the soap was complimentary. Kayongo was confused. “Thank you, but I already got one yesterday when I arrived. Where is that one?” The concierge replied, “We replace the soap every day for every guest. No charge.” Surprised, Kayongo asked, “What do you do with the old bars?” “Housekeeping throws them away,” answered the concierge. Kayongo considered this for a moment and thought to himself, “If only half of the hotels [in America] did this, it was an incredible amount of soap — hundreds of millions of bars just being dumped into landfills.” Speaking later to Herman, he added, “I couldn’t get it out of my head.” It stayed in his head. He began personally collecting used soaps from every hotel he could find. He arranged to have these soaps processed by a recycling facility. This was the beginning of the charity he created, called the Global Soap Project, which is now known as Clean the World. Thanks to Derreck Kayongo, over 100 tons of soap have been recycled and redistributed to 32 countries on 4 continents as part of a hygiene program he designed.

That one bar of soap, a thing so many of us have seen and thought of differently — ignored, likely, felt entitled to, perhaps, or just absorbed by the noise of everyday life — was instead a signal for Kayongo. Rather than matching this tiny detail to a pattern of relative abundance, it immediately registered an incongruity with his experience. Where he came from — where he fled from — was a place of hardship and deprivation. Under a dictator’s rule, Kayongo’s family and community had nothing in abundance. Even a small sliver of soap was precious.

Herman writes:

“We can survive and thrive today if we know how to see. To see what’s there that others don’t. To see what’s not there that should be. To see the opportunity, the solution, the warning signs, the quickest way, the way out, the win. To see what matters…You just have to see. We’re born with the inherent ability; in fact, our body does it involuntarily. If your eyes are open, you are seeing.”

Understanding reality is pattern-matching. Everything we see is, in less than a second, interrogated by every sense we have at our disposal, named, categorized, cross-referenced, and filed away for later.

However, understanding is entirely subjective. We approach truth when our conclusions are shared, but most of the time, our perceptions construct reality without being fact-checked. When they are corrected, we then must dismantle the reality we have constructed. This is hard labor, and entirely at one’s discretion. For the very rational among us, it would not seem so; truth demands our surrender. But we must also know, deep down, that this, too, is not so. Each of us chooses to reject the correction of our own senses — some more than others — but we are all prisoners of preference.

Sensing is involuntary; sense-making is voluntary. An open eye will see, but only an open mind will redraw the lines of reality. That act of will may be obliged by the values we hold dear, but it must also be desired. No one acts without desire. Even when we do the thing we don’t want to do, we do it because we want something else.

Visual Literacy

I’ve been somewhat of a collector of texts about seeing. Among the very best in my estimation are those that begin with an understanding that seeing is more than just an optical phenomenon; it’s a psychological one. And if seeing is the catalyst of a process of mind — a realm about which we still no so little — it might as well be a metaphysical happening also.

Amy Herman’s Visual Intelligence strives to hit the bedrock of the phsyiological-psychological-philosophical mesh of seeing. Similarly, Peter Mendelsund uses words as a foundation for understanding how the mind is fundamentally symbolic in his masterful work, What We See When We Read. It is a worthy descendant of McLuhan and Fiore’s The Medium is the Massage. Further up on the conceptual ladder are many texts on visual literacy. These construct systems by which we build and reverse-engineer the visual planes of our world. My favorites are Donis Dondis’s A Primer of Visual Literacy, Wucius Wong’s Principles of Two-Dimensional Design, and Molly Bang’s Picture This: How Pictures Work. Further still are modern texts that explore sense-making when our signals are fully detached from the physical world. Ambient Commons, by Malcolm McCullough is a fine entry to that dialogue. As a corpus, these texts describe the phenomenon that begins with seeing and continues with understanding. Their narrative has no endpoint, as understanding is process, not a conclusion. Understanding is fluid. (So, let the texts continue and the libraries expand!)

One particular text, ostensibly written from an entirely practical and peripheral position of the perceptual spectrum, continues to astound me with both its everyday guidance and its profundity. Editing by Design, written by Jan and Alex White and first published in 1974 is a “classic” text on editorial design. It was written to help people win the attention of others — first from the perspective of print communication, but updated continually as the context has shifted to the digital realm.

The evolution of the media landscape has driven so much change to our reality so quickly, that we are almost certainly decades away from our understanding catching up with our capabilities. We’ve created more signal than we know what to do with. The challenge that Jan White met almost fifty years ago was simpler than the one he encountered when later editions were requested by his publisher, to say nothing of those his son has inherited in updating the book just last year. Capturing the attention of a reader of a printed page — a reader who might choose to read something else or nothing at all — would seem entirely different from capturing the attention of a person inundated with draws on their attention.

From various screens around us, all projecting a four-dimensional space filled with information in countless forms, to haptic pulses beneath our fingers and pockets, we live in a reality over-saturated with signal. I’ve often though about how signal-saturation, though, is relative. Imagine lying in a meadow in a world with no electricity. In the absence of the drones of distant fans, generators, motors, jet engines passing overhead, and even the more proximate pings and chimes of notifications, there would be no less signal to absorb. The sounds of the Earth — its expanding and contracting, of the winds that cross it, the vibratory shifts of atmospheric pressure, every chirp, caw, rustle and bristle of every creature — and of us — of every breath from our own bodies, every pulse from the blood flowing within — would be more than we can take in at once.

Lookers and Readers

Sensing may be continual, but processing is limited. We only take in a portion of what we’re offered. And processing, too, is partial. What we can fast-track we do. That’s why understanding is usually additive. When we perceive something new, we run it through what we have already perceived. When we find enough matches, we call something “the same” or “like” or “part of”. It’s efficient, but it’s not always productive. Derek Kayongo’s story proves as much.

We who make things have always had individually perceived and partially shared realities as competition for the attention we seek. So back to Jan and Alex White; their pragmatism is useful here. Take this passage — copy it, write it some place, buy the book for yourself, do what you will but remember it:

“We must respond to today’s realities: people don’t want to read or study, they are lazy and in a hurry. They buy our product as investors, expecting a return on their money, time, and effort. They start as searchers, scrollers, flipping, looking for what might interest them. If they find it, they may turn into readers but they are always weighing the cost/benefit ratio: am I interested enough in this? If it looks too long they’ll say to hell with it I’ll come back to it later. If it is too skimpy they’ll scoff at it: I want more story. If it is too bland they won’t notice it. And it always has to be fast: where does it begin and where does it end, how much of it is there?
Lookers (readers before they become committed to text) subconsciously weigh time and effort with their interest in the content…Most people examine a page or screen for, at most, 2.5 seconds before they turn it or click through, unless something intrigues them and they stop. It must be immediate, obvious, and need no analysis.”

I continually differentiate between lookers and readers in the work that I do. I tirelessly evangelize this idea to my clients. And I take it one step further: Most lookers never become readers. Even those who think they have; if reading means to have actually seen every word in the order in which you have written them and understood the message, then no, most people do not read what we write. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t understood. It may sound cynical to say that looking is the best case scenario, but that is only so if we believe that looking cannot be productive. But I don’t believe that. We know too much about how looking works to conclude that it is only preliminary.

White’s assertion that “they buy our product as investors” is deeper than it may sound. Every act of attention is an investment. It’s a decision we make based upon the impression of relevance. Here’s a very minor but useful example: I have analyzed the subscription patterns of the aggregate audiences of over a hundred of my clients’ websites. What I have observed is that, contrary to my initial assumptions, most newsletter/email/digest subscription forms are submitted within just a few seconds of page load. Not after minutes. In other words, having read an entire article is not a prerequisite to subscription; the impression of relevance, however, is. Having scanned the page — having only looked over its contents — website visitors perceive its nature and purpose and make a judgement about its value and relevance to them. Some of this looking is at text. But more of it is at the basic visual elements of the page.

A page’s structure communicates something before a looker perceives its contents. A page’s visual language communicates more — different kinds of information and their priority — even before the specific ways in which they support text are experienced and understood. What we commonly think of as “visual aids” often stand alone. Understanding this will change how we design. As I understand it, White’s perspective on editorial design was that it was far more difficult to attract attention than to keep it. In other words, 80% of our work is in engaging with the outer reaches of attention — cutting through the noise, aligning with the intent of others, communicating relevance, clarity, and value virtually instantaneously — and 20% of it with engaging with the interior space of focus. If most of our attention never leaves that outer space, then our challenge is to communicate the most truth and gain the most value from it that we can.

The Mystery of The Attention Space

When I think of attention as a vast space, and of mapping it, even in such a basic way as the looker/reader divide, I am in awe of our ability to communicate at all. I am in awe of our ability to make sense of anything. I am in awe that reality is not the product of our own understandings, but of our agreements. Our shared understandings.

On the one hand, this illuminates reality. It fills it with a secret shimmering seen by those who connect with the mystery of perception. It’s enough to sustain a lifetime of making and striving for connection.

But on the other hand, it convinces me that there will always be gaps. Call them the dark matter of the attention space or the blind spots of human perception or the disconnections between stories, but if perception is a forever mystery — a puzzle that yields infinite clues — it is because we who try to sort it out are all unique minds. That is why when a concierge saw a housekeeping protocol born out of hygienic requirements and an abundance of resources, Derreck Kayongo saw waste and an opportunity to share. The concierge was never going to see it Kayongo’s way, and Kayongo was never going to see it way of the American hotel. Both were acts of seeing. Both were partial. It was the collision that created something new.

Design is a collisional phenomenon, then, isn’t it? In an attention space that is constantly in motion, our minds collide with what we make over and over again. An editor may opt for concision here and call it “noise.” But there is something in the unedited, uncontrolled mess of it all that is instructive and should not be cut short. In fact, that is the point: reality is unabridged. Design is an editorial act. Be that as it may, I cherish the reminder that Kayongo’s story offers, that as much control as we strive for — in gathering reality and expressing it in shorthand and then, against all odds, getting others to look and read — there are surprises. There is more reality to be seen that sometimes only someone else can see.




Recent Tabs

This was my soundtrack for writing this week. 12 Predictions for the Future of Music. Nick Carr tears down the Metaverse. And consumers don’t care about it anyway; never have. The hidden climate costs of America’s free parking spaces. Philip K. Dick’s Novels Of The ’50s Are Underrated. This is a beautiful kinetic sculpture wall. What are the raw materials in your iPhone, Starbucks cup and bike? — In pictures. “Bots are only interesting when they aren’t expected to be consistently useful.” Why Did We Start Living in Cities? No, you can’t.