Research through design | Visual Contextualization
Welcome to the area of visual contextualization!
Visual contextualization and my understanding of research,
teaching and design work in visual communication.
Flick through my visual diary, or rather logbook, and find out how I see and understand my main emphasis in visual communication research on communication with pictures, symbols and texts.
As a designer I primarily research “through design”. For this I can use several sources: my work praxis as well as my teaching occupation at the university. I understand design research as a design discipline within applied design and design science. Thus my research is design per se.
My visual research diary "visual contextualization", in which I engage myself with seeing and perceiving pictures of my everyday life, is divided into the following different topics:
All these topics are documented in a picture gallery, which you can directly choose from the “pull-down menu” above.
What is „visual contextualization“?
Come and join me on the search for images and symbols in our surroundings. Here in my visual research diary I investigate the „seeing“ and collect everyday images: symbols, structures, fragments, colour combinations. Every one of these things tells me their own formal aesthetic or cognitive story and stimulates my emotions. They are visual side notes, a “designer’s way of science”.
I understand visual contextualization as a deductive method of documenting and exploring visual skills and transforming it into cultural and aesthetic knowledge. Visual contextualization sensitizes us for our everyday world of images.
As a writer’s travel diary is the basis of the next novel after he or she returns home and as a nature scientist documents his or her observations and bases experiments on these, so visual contextualization works out and visualizes relations, preferences and contexts. Afterwards these newly created realizations should be integrated intentionally into the design praxis and improve and cultivate it.
Visual contextualization is a life-long learning process, which my students quickly learn to apply and from which they profit amazingly again and again.
What makes „visual contextualization“ relevant for design research?
As a designer I think in images. At the beginning of a design an „inner picture“ develops first which I can only see with my „inner eye“.
Visual contextualization is an image-cocoon-phase prior to the actual design praxis. In the following development phase some of these image-cocoons grow and transmute into butterflies. Thereby completely new images, artefacts and projects form and contextualize which were nurtured in the cocoon but learnt to fly in the development phase.
„Visual contextualization“ is graphic thinking
As a designer of visual communication I research "through design". What qualifies me for an occupation in design is an active dispute with the world of images, by means of researching „through seeing“. Design assumes a visual image-competence. Subsequently design is primarily not a manual competence bur rather graphic thinking.
„Visual contextualization“: a tool which helps to build up cultural and aesthetic knowledge
I am amazed by how little foundational research is done in the area of visualistics. In the praxis of design there is still a strong separation between the image-theory disciplines (semiotic, aesthetic, phenomenology, perception and design psychology) on the one hand and image-praxis disciplines (design, photography, art) on the other.
Until now we have lacked the tools with which we could make a connection between theoretical and practical orientated research. These tools in our everyday day life as a designer transform our experience of seeing into cultural and aesthetic knowledge in an experimental, playful-intuitive and graphic way. Visual contextualization should contribute to filling these gaps as education cannot be produced but may be made possible.
„Visual contextualization“: an image says more than a thousand words
Our brain processes our surroundings’ information by means of two systems: the verbal-linguistic system and the non-verbal sensation system.
The verbal system is altogether responsible for sequential information such as hearing, speaking and reading. The non-verbal system on the other hand deals with visual, acoustic, olfactory and haptic information. The non-verbal system works in a multisensory way and is therefore, in terms of complexity and context assets, the more intelligent, cognitive and superior of the two systems.
Images strike our brain as often and quickly as a volley of gunfire. These „emotional snapshots" (1 - 2,5 sec.) are perceived considerably faster and more comprehensibly than texts (about 7 sec.). Moreover we use a valuable source of associations which consists of symbols, symbolism, information and experiences for processing images and helping to understand the new. Contrary to this information texts are collected in a certain order: from left to right, from top to bottom. Images, however, do not have a beginning of a sentence, a comma or a full stop. They do not have a beginning or an end but are taken in in their entirety.
Designers, photographers and artists know: "an image says more than a thousand words ".
„Visual contextualization“: pushing the active process of communication
How a viewer interprets an image or a design depends on his or her cultural and aesthetic knowledge. Many look at an image without being able to understand it, analyze it critically, let alone generate new images from it or making suggestions on how it could be improved.
Images arouse more attention and curiosity than a text. Images give viewers the opportunity of interpreting and understanding. Images actively include the viewer into the process of communication as everybody has to define their own valid meaning of the image. Texts on the other hand are more a subject to a passive process of communication. They seldom allow opportunities for individual interpretation. Texts generally imply something which was intended. The author’s written thoughts are to be decoded as accurately as possible. We humans let our previous knowledge and experiences influence the examination and assessment of images.
Normally image-information allows considerably more flexibility for interpretation compared to text-information. For this reason pictograms in orientation systems, for example, are often decoded twice. The pictogram is translated into a word- its meaning. Visual perception is not objective but subjective and depends on the respective viewer.
„Visual contextualization“: Typography as an image and emotion carrier
The visual tool which is used for the typographic decoding process is the font. Type is purely seen as being formal-aesthetic and nothing more than a graphic symbol.
Therefore it is not surprising that nowadays every amateur is spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing a font for his or her computer written letter: Comic Sans, Arial, Verdana, Times or maybe better Palatino?
As we designers often talk of „typeface“ in context with typography and as you know images are emotion carriers and signifiers, in terms of content it is a big difference if a scientific text is typed in Times or Comic Sans, just as it would border on blasphemy to type the Bible in Mambo, Rosewood or Chinatown Sans.
The typeset is not just a formal-aesthetic but also a rhetoric and in terms of content an important decision because we think graphically.
„Visual Contextualization“: Visual communication is permanent influence
Images and visual communication permanently influence us as receivers of messages and constantly and directly create emotions. By this and due to us perceiving around 70% of our surroundings by means of seeing, the sense of seeing become our primary sense.
Advertising has supremacy over images and their effect. Now and then this emotional effect can be so strong that it impairs or even eliminates our cognitive and wilful control.
If we as consumers would use our common sense then we would boycott rather than buy some advertised products due to their dim picture language. But it seems the opposite happens: “Sex sells” would be an example. This image or rather communication concept which is frequently used for car calendars, perfume and alcohol advertisements is a best seller and is the sad proof that the emotional effect of images and key-visuals evade our cognitive and wilful control.
But generally one should not condemn advertising and the communication by means of images. Not all advertisements want to manipulate. On the contrary, images have a positive function in visual communication as they describe complex and integral facts more quickly, plainly and clearly than texts. Good examples for this are the infamous assembly instructions of IKEA. These “diagrams” simply complex information and make it comprehensible. Images also have a loosening effect on articles in magazines with a lot of text. In overloaded texts images can seem like an oasis in which readers can rest and relax.
"Visual contextualization": Images are effective in different ways
The visual material which I collect in „visual contextualization“ primarily has one meaning. As a designer I know that the emotional effect of images and their meaning are very subjective and can be different for every person. A client interprets a poster in another way than the designer. Even amongst experts and colleagues the principle of „10 designers, 11 opinions“ prevails.
We humans let our previous knowledge and experiences influence the examination and assessment of images. Image information can therefore, in comparison to texts, be interpreted in numerous ways. Visual perception is not objective but subjective and depends on the respective viewer.
Seeing is an active process which is managed depending on the viewer’s individual visual skills and how effective these images are depends on the following functions:
- Activation function: Certain image symbols (for example a pictogram) principally evoke previous knowledge, therefore known concepts and action principles.
- Constructional function: Collages and images sequences can depict complex and visual concepts. By doing so the designer can combine the viewer’s previous knowledge in a new way to create new knowledge and evoke new emotions.
- Emotional function: Images can accentuate the viewer’s point of view and conjure up, confirm and reinforce emotions.
- Abstraction function: Charts, diagrams and info graphics contribute to acquiring knowledge. Such visual depictions of models often have to communicate a lot of complex information in the form of a simple diagram.
„Visual contextualization“: perception and thoughts
As a designer I am confronted by the social prejudice that „seeing is separated from thinking“. The conviction prevails that our mind, if it should be able to find its way in this world, has to serve two purposes:
- He or she has to collect the substance of experience (perception)
- He or she has to process the substance of experience (thought)
In scientific discourse nobody denies that the „raw material“ and images which are collected by seeing are indispensible. Nevertheless this collecting is seen as low work. The mind’s higher organs of perception (eyes, nose, etc.) are subject to forming words and improving, connecting, differentiating and logically developing knowledge.
That something like an intelligence of sight exists is excluded from the start! Seeing, designing and artistic occupations would consequently not be thinking or scientific disciplines but merely low, manual-craft disciplines!
The distrust and oppression towards visual perception, seeing itself and its images, can be traced back to the ancient world. The Jewish prohibition of images and Moses’ destruction of the Golden Calf (which was melted by fire, ground to powder, scattered over water and given to the children of Israel to drink) are just two examples of many. Another example is the Muslim culture which belongs to the „picture-less cultures“. Images are hardly found, instead patterns symbols are used.
The Greek philosophers have manifested the predominance of the mind towards visual perception. They set the course for this philosophy of life which was introduced to didactic education and thus became a part of our present social world view. Plato urgently warned of visual perception as it could mislead humanity. Proof for this was, among other things, optical illusions. Plato was also hostile towards picture-making occupations, such as painting and sculpting. The visual arts are to be handled with care as they encourage the misdirection of untainted appearance of things.
This philosophy of life was passed on by medieval philosophers, such as Duns Scotus, to the philosophy of the 17th and 18th century rationalist. This classified the communication of our senses as being confused and then persuaded the mind that it had the need to confront this miscommunication. This theory lead to the exclusion of visual arts from the seven independent arts of the medieval period- these were named independent arts as they were worthy only for the free human being. The seven independent arts are all connected with language or mathematics:
Language: Grammar, dialectic, rhetoric
Mathematics: Arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music
That music passed into the humanistic educational system of the late Middle Ages is of course party due to Plato who saw a mathematical order in music, an order which is based on the harmony of the universe and thus lies beyond the senses.
Mechanical arts such as painting, sculpting, craft work and house work were subordinated to the liberal arts.
Even today our whole upbringing is based on words and numbers. Art and design with images is seen as pure manual skill. The visual arts, design and implementation of images are neglected in school as this occupation is based on our senses. Up until today perception is thought little of as it apparently does not demand thought.
But seeing and designing, art and design are primarily not manual skills but graphic thinking. The result is that first-year students are mostly autodidacts in the following practical disciplines: design, photography and art; and thus partly have a big education deficit in terms of visual skills. But one should not reproach them for this. Where should they have learnt these skills systematically and methodically? Reading, writing and counting is trained from early childhood, whereas active seeing, graphic thinking and generating images are not.
But this opinion is antediluvian and wrong. Nowadays we live in a highly complex world which is dominated by media and is constantly bombarded with images. These days not just experts and advertisers design images but also private people can publish their images. Images, illustrations and info graphics which are designed and manipulated by computer are uploaded onto the internet by everyone, regardless of their age. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and internet blogs are just a few. Exceptional visual skills should not just exist in visual-praxis-disciplines such as design, photography and art but be part of general education. Visual skills are as important as reading, writing and counting.
„Visual contextualization“ Space for training visual skills
The same as we have to train our language skills we also have to train our visual skills. It is important for me that intuitive visual skills are made aware of by collecting and documenting in our day to day life. For this I use visual contextualization in my research and teaching work and try to close the historically and socially made visual gaps.
Intuition plays an important part in all scientific disciplines and it is often one’s intuition which that is at the beginning of a research plan. I understand intuitive, spontaneous actions as the opposite of methodical acting. As far as that goes, for me visual contextualization is a concept and an instruction for graphic thinking. It is about a graphic acquisition of things by visual experiences of our everyday culture.
What part does graphical and visual communicated knowledge play in the experience of our world? How can we improve our visual skills by seeing so that we can communicate even highly complex things a better way? The sensual perception and especially the visual perception are skills which are of high epistemological importance as well as high design-practical importance.
Philosophy has already realized the epistemological worth of sensual perception: "Nothing is in the mind that has not been in the senses" (John Locke, 1704).
„Visual contextualization“ Design research by active seeing
The opinion that seeing and thinking is separated and therefore design, art and thinking „function“ on a different, unexplainable level, is still widely spread between designers and artists. That design and art are research is seen as absurd by many creative people. „Designers do not research, we much rather design…“.
Many designers express and describe their competences as neither an achievement of thought nor intelligence but as a talent, a (divine) gift or matter-of-factly as heredity.
Designers are often victims of their own historically and socially developed prejudices. Designers degrade themselves as they deny intelligence of sight and formal-aesthetic design. For this reason artistic abilities possess something mysterious.