If you don’t want to hear, you have to see!

A plea for a design-based visual science

by Oliver Wrede, December 2005
Article in Boxhorn 12 on the subject of “Sehsturz” (visual impairment

“What you can’t talk about, you have to show!”

(loosely based on Wittgenstein)

The question of visual impairment takes on a specific meaning when vision is replaced by perception. Accordingly, “Sehsturz” (visual impairment) would not mean the loss of the sense of sight, but the impairment of the ability to recognize. Now, seeing is not synonymous with cognition, but in fact we often use “seeing” and “cognition” synonymously in our language: we “see something”, have “visions”, make “pictures” of things, are “blinded by love”, have an impression “at first sight”, etc.

Spiritual absorption – contemplation – comes from the Latin contemplatio (contemplation, looking, spiritual contemplation of the supernatural). This peculiarity, that we (can) use seeing as a metaphor for mental processes and states, indicates how deeply involved seeing is with our thinking. Philosophy has formulated its own discipline for this: epistemology (theory of knowledge). And it is no coincidence that the most essential questions of epistemology are also questions about perception, cognition and how perception and cognition give rise to a view.

“You can only see well with your heart, the essentials are invisible to the eyes.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

A serious “visual impairment” in this sense would be a loss of the ability to contemplate: being unable to mentally distance oneself from what one sees with one’s own eyes – and thus no longer being able to move from seeing to contemplation.

That one should develop a view of what reality is outside of sensory experience – i.e. only by virtue of one’s intellect – is a program that goes back to the origins of modern science: the scientist should always strive to distinguish himself from the world as an observing and describing authority and to write scientific findings in the form of neutral language and factual evidence – no longer in the form of direct and personal experience, which may no longer have any general validity outside of one’s subjective horizon and one’s own values and prejudices.

“There is nothing in the mind that was not previously in the senses, except the mind itself.”

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

Many scientific fields are rediscovering vision in the form of scientific visualization as a means of cognitive modelling: geography, meteorology, medicine, astronomy, physics and others are no longer able to carry out current research without imaging techniques. The artificially generated image is even accepted as a thinking tool: the visible serves not only for viewing, but for thinking in general. The “retinal space” thus takes on a cognitive function. And it is also plausible: an average chess player, for example, needs to look at the board in order to be able to think about moves.

There is therefore a clear connection between vision and perception, which presents itself as a dependency – and also in the other direction: it is also perception that can, conversely, direct the gaze and lead to selective perception (“seeing what you want to see”). Studies on the selectivity of perception (e.g. by Ulrich Neisser and later Daniel Simons on the subject of “inattentional blindness” or “change detection”) show that what we see depends directly on where our attention is focused. If our attention is 100% focused, there is no room left to correctly evaluate absurd facts – even when slightly overstrained, it is surprisingly easy to break the correlation between vision and perception.

It becomes uncanny when the sense of sight is not only tricked by distraction but, according to our understanding of the truth of the visible, completely eludes conscious control. This can be observed, for example, in the phenomenon of “motion induced blindness”: the brain gives such clear priority to moving objects that static objects can sometimes become completely invisible even though we know exactly that they are there and that there can be no physiological reason for their disappearance. For a moment, at least, it seems understandable why a frog starves to death in an aquarium full of dead flies: it only perceives its prey when it moves. This is what its visual system specializes in. And it is not naïve to assume that our visual system is specialized in a similar way – albeit based on different requirements.

The resulting question is whether, in addition to biogenetic specialization, there is also developmental specialization and whether we are trained in this way, so to speak, by the demands placed on our visual system after birth. The light stimuli on the retina are only the beginning of a whole series of processes that eventually turn the perceptual sensation into the perceptual impression. One could even assume that perception is not a one-way street, but that we generate a concept of the world that is then merely confirmed or corrected by the perceptual impressions. The fact that we do not recognize this active construction of a possible reality as such could simply be due to the fact that reality often behaves predictably and in line with expectations: everyone can rely on decades of continuous training. To the extent that we develop viewing habits in a culture, our visual system also becomes attuned to established and conventionalized forms of visual communication. To a certain extent, we are professionals at generating expectations that are likely to be accurate. This is why we are happy every time something unexpected happens: it shows us that the distinction between reality (seeing) and reality (viewing) has not become completely obsolete, that the world designs are just models and that we will never get to the point where we can see them.

The Enlightenment was a project to abolish myths as models for explaining the world: people were to free themselves from prescribed knowledge and strive for intellectual and rational convictions. The mythical power inherent in images was discredited as being able to outwit the mind, which is why the Enlightenment philosophers were deeply skeptical of images (iconophobia). Only recently has there been a renewed focus on images and their impact in the form of visual studies (see “iconic turn” vs. “linguistic turn”). What is missing is the discipline of “visual studies”, which translates the iconic turn into educational programs. Design education could take on such a pioneering role, as design is concerned not only with the technical and semiotic aspects but also with aesthetic questions of image creation.

“Esse est percipi!” (“To be is to be perceived!”)

George Berkeley

Aesthetics develops the theory of the connection between sensory experience (seeing) and meaningfulness (perception). At its core, design is a profession that traces this connection and even partly determines it: It is less about explaining things and phenomena aesthetically than about making aesthetic judgments and thereby creating things. Herein lies the categorical difference between science and design. Design itself never really stood in the scientific tradition: the goal is not knowledge, but designability (aestheticization of everyday life). A design is not a theoretical construction. Unfortunately, this has led many designers to the misconception that a design can legitimize and argue itself in the absence of a theoretical classification.

In order to establish design-related visual studies, a number of obstacles still need to be removed that do not stand in the way of a purely analytical visual science:

… there is a traditionally anti-discursive attitude of designers and a paralyzing reluctance to deal with theoretical implications of their own profession. This seems to remain the case as long as there is no recognizable event that unequivocally demonstrates the consequences of this aversion in the form of a creeping reduction in competence.

»We do not see that we see nothing!«

Heinz von Förster

… the current discussion about the possible impact of design-based visualistics on the scientific paradigm of knowledge is not over. We have long been living in an image-bound conception of reality that is in itself already completely virtualized and simulated. It does not seem clear whether visual communication inevitably contributes to this virtualization and whether, for example, the demystifying effect of an information graphic actually has the exact opposite effect and shifts the depicted facts into an unreal light that no longer has much in common with reality.

… one could get the impression that the sheer flood of images and their lack of reference has now led to a certain image fatigue and desensitization to questions of image communication. On the one hand, we are confronted with a completely new form of image anxiety, which, due to their emotional and manipulative effect in politics and advertising, no longer generally grants images any cognitive purpose: most images become interchangeable, are always similar to themselves and thus represent nothing but themselves. They then first fulfill the purpose of a precognitive influence on the viewer: the emotional appropriation for or against something. On the other hand, images serve as a starting point for psychological-cognitive projections – as carriers of myths and references to personal desired realities.

“Well, it’s undoubtedly unpleasant to go to a ‘Matrix’ double feature night and simply sleep through the new, obtrusively advertised second part at an advanced hour. [But] it was somehow quite nice, so detached from the world in the midst of booming digital rambazamba.”

Jan Engelmann

… access to visual evidence of things that were previously only available in the imagination creates a desire for visual sensation: pornography, eyewitness videos, the splatter question in computer games, cool Flash animation and computer-generated visual effects in the cinema are similar in this respect. The image becomes a fetish, an instrument of quick gratification with an addictive factor.

This raises the question of whether a fundamental investigation into the structuring of thought through images is an area of research that is related to design practice. The opposite position would be that such an investigation could not produce any design-relevant results and therefore need not (or should not) be pursued by designers themselves, or that this would be a way of distinguishing between professional and academic design training (this distinction between professional and academic training is, however, an educational policy construct).

It is obvious that without such an investigation within the design practice, exactly what appears to be obstacles at the moment will come true: design that is incapable of producing anything other than fetishes, image sensations, floods of images, simulations and cognition-free, arbitrary and interchangeable results. It would be a design that creates a new image skepticism – and thus robs itself of its own legitimacy.

I am therefore launching an appeal that denounces a lack of “visualistic competence” in visual communication and calls for a new design-related version of visualistics, which is also offensively contrasted with a purely analytical visual science. The “Sehsturz” (the “visual impairment”) – understood as a phenomenon of disturbed self-perception (seeing) and consequently incomplete concepts of the world (views) – is therefore, as things stand, a question that is definitely also directed at visual communication itself.