Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 31, Figure-Ground

Download Episode 31

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about Unity, which we've described as the compositional goal of taking many elements and fashioning them into a cohesive whole. In other words, we don't want our audience to be distracted by the parts and pieces of a thing, we want them to see the big picture, and want them to see it in way where everything ties together, everythings feels integral, everything hangs together as one piece, and creates one effect. And as we pointed out, this is essentially the definition of design, itself.

So, in keeping with this idea, we're taking a short tour through Gestalt theory, which is about perception as a dynamic process. It's about making meaning out of what we see, and how our minds want to make meaninful patterns out of chaos. And we do this by perceptually organizing what we're looking at. As we look around, as we survey our environment, we begin to infer a sense of structure and relationship among the things we see. And we do this so we can quickly come to terms with it all, to make sense of it all. And in a survival sense, it makes sense that our minds want to know what we're up against, so we can react appropriately.

In visual design, we learn how to apply these principles of perception so we can aid that process. Generally speaking, we want to make things as intuitive and as instant as we can. Because the goal is communicate, to transmit meaning rapidly, and make sure people get the message.

So, I'd like to give a quick rundown of these Gestalt rules, or tools, starting with what's called figure / ground. Figure/Ground is a way of understanding the visual field before us. If we see a man, for example, standing in the street, we see the man as the figure, and everything else as ground. And depending on how clear that distinction is to us, we'll have a stronger or weaker sense of which is which. The distinction between figure and ground is usually achieved by contrast. The darkness or lightness of a figure, for example, will clarify it as the figure. Or maybe the background is blurry, whereas the figure is in focus. Or maybe the distinction has something to do with the composition, since the placement of the figure can influence our perception of it. As designers, we want to get skillful at controlling the balance of figure and ground, and sometimes even making it purposely uncertain, in order to achieve a certain effect.

And I'll ask you to call to mind the famous optical illusion of the faces and the vase. This is the one that usually depicts a white vase against a black field. I remember personally encountering this for the first time as a kid on a cub scout trip to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, which is basically a science museum. One of the exhibits featured this image. And I remember that as I looked at that vase, an unexpected surprise happened. I sensed a kind of shift, as the foreground and background flipped positions, and suddenly the shape of two faces, two facing profiles emerged. Those black shapes - the faces - were now the foreground and the white vase was pushed back into space. It was all my own perception, but it was powerful nonetheless. Powerful enough for me to recall the experience vividly, some thirty years later.

You may also remember the famous Gestalt picture of the old lady and the young woman. At first glance, you see a young woman, head turned away from us. But as you continue looking, you may see the face of an old lady emerge.

The reason this kind of switch or flip occurs is due to a perceptual decision that we make. Our minds decide that one thing is the figure, and the rest ground. One thing appears as foreground, the rest is background. So if an image is ambiguous in this respect, this figure-ground flip is likelier to happen, as we seek to wrap our perceptual mind around the subject. So, this is kind of an internal decision making process that we're not necessarily aware of. Our minds do it in order to make sense of what we're looking at.

M.C. Escher famously manipulated our sense of figure and ground with his popular sketches, a perrenial favorite in the form of coffee table books and mugs and mouse pads

And graphic designers continually exploit figure ground. They do this for a lot of reasons. One reason is that it's just a neat optical trick, as we've pointed out. But the best reason is that it's just so efficient. It's elegant. Think about it. Why introduce additional figure, why add another positive element, when you can imply another element from the ground? It's a way of making 1 +1 = 3, of getting more from less, of pulling a rabbit out of hat. And that's why the shining examples in graphic design are those classic corporate logos. Look up Saul Bass' wonderful and enduring Girl Scout logo, for example, and you'll see a cascade of faces constructed out of just a couple of shapes and an activated background. Bass works magic with this mark. He brings the background into the foreground in such a way that the sum is greater than the parts.

I'll admit this is a tough one to describe in words alone. So, I'll encourage you to continue this little lesson on your own by searching Google images for stuff like the Girl Scout logo, or the works of M.C. Escher. It's helpful to explain how figure ground works, but you've just got to see it to appreciate it.

But I think that'll do for today. Let me remind you that a transcript of today's episode may be found at Music is by I look forward to having you back again.

No comments: