An anthropomorphic approach to design.
We live in a world saturated by information, a volume of stimulus beyond what we can consciously process in real-time. I'm not talking about media, but even just the physical reality. Look around you, every pixel of colour, every shape, every object, every being - big or small, every smell and wind blow, and sound or whisper. By just considering the "objective reality" surrounding us, we may well be able to count billions of new bits of information reaching us every second.
When we are designing either an object, an interface, or a marketing campaign, it is fundamental to consider the complex mechanisms involved in decoding reality.
What we perceive is not an absolute true representation of reality. There is still much we don't know about the way our mind and consciousness work, but neurosciences and psychology have started to reveal new insights into the tools our brain uses to co-exist with the billions of data points received by our senses at any given time. One way or another, we disregard, prioritise and categorise all those stimuli, and we create in our minds a simplified and consequently often not so objective version of reality. This deceptive but functional representation of reality is created by delivering a fast and fluid average of what we actually perceive through our senses. We take cognitive shortcuts to avoid what, otherwise, will turn into a hallucinogenic experience of reality through the over-saturation of our cognitive capabilities. In a nutshell, every second, we create our very own version of reality.
Perception is biased
... but the only aspects involved on our mental representation of reality are not just those conditioned by the limits of our physiology. The biological filter by which we interpret reality, even at symbolic visual levels, also conforms to our own pre-judgements of that reality.
To summarise, perception is biased by at least three factors: Experiences, Context and Goals.
Well before our primitive cousins started walking the African savanna, brains learned the ways to quickly discern the signals of a potential predator among the otherwise overwhelming diversity of external stimuli. Since this process takes place in an instant, quite frequently the interpreted signal of a predator was not real, but increased the chances of passing on their genes to the next generation.
Our use of mental shortcuts has evolved to function, as much as to survive. As hunters, but also as preys we evolved to take speedy conclusions based on our experiences even when having rather limited information.
One of the most compelling collection of principles showcasing how experience and biology influence our visual perceptions was developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the Gestalt school of psychology. These principles helped us understand with remarkable clarity how and why we interpret what we see in particular ways. Let's take a look at some of them:
This wonderful tool of our minds allow us to identify shapes quicker by completing the missing parts based on our previous knowledge of their appearance.
We can all immediately identify the shape of a triangle defined by the cuts into the circles (left). And we can do so, even when the triangle actually hasn't been drawn.
Figure-Ground This wonderful book cover designed by Phoebe Morris (right) is a formidable example of the perceptual behaviour the Gestalt defined as identifying a figure from the background. The Rubin's vase below stretches the limits of how the relationship between the figure and the background defines the meaning of the image.
Care to discover about some other Gestalt principles?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk7cXdjX2Ys
A second key element to consider as part of the design process is context. By Context, I mean all the sociological, cultural, historical, political and usability factors that surround us.
The examples below showcase design pairs from two aesthetic movements; the ones on the left of each pair depict a representation of Art Nouveau, those on the right its Art Deco counterpart. While Art Nouveau was a reaction to the academic arts of the 19th century inspired by natural forms, its sucesor, Art Deco was a confluence of different styles united by a desire to be modern, a reflection on the changing industrial society of the time.