Ellen Lupton: Vision is a Process

Wielding Gestalt laws, horror film, symphonic deletions and moonwalking bears, Ellen Lupton breaks down the concepts of visual thinking and visual storytelling to reveal that they might not be as purely visual as we think.

ellen lupton on stage at TYPO SF with struckout text behind her
Ellen Lupton on stage at TYPO SF with struckout text behind her, Image courtesy of Alyssa Miller (@alyssakara22)
How much can we torture a font and still make it work?

Although Ellen Lupton only briefly discussed type and letters in her talk (in fact, she only said serif once, and it was to mention that they wouldn’t be mentioned again), the lessons she had to share were clearly applicable to the work designers do every day. After all, while many designers have locked down their process and have a killer eye for what’s good, deconstructing that process can often be quite difficult – and challenging it can be downright Herculean. Through explorations of human psychology, art across media, and a critical look at the design process, Lupton gave the audience of TYPO SF the tools to question some fundamental ideas about vision, encouraging people to look at type and design in new and useful ways.

Exploring Visual Thinking

lion cub in a tree A single lion, or many pieces of lion floating around a branch? (Creative Commons Cub in Tree courtesy of Flickr User Christopher Jensen, CC BY-ND 2.0)
Lupton began by exploring visual thinking. While “visual thinking” has been co-opted into a bit of a buzz word these days, it’s not actually all that novel, and Lupton quickly invoked the Gestalt school of psychology, which for almost a century has insisted that humans rely on a vast number of visual cues to understand and navigate the world. In particular, this is the “theory of unconscious inference, which helps ensure that we make smart guesses about what’s going on around us: people see a series of circles in the Olympic rings instead of complex semi-circles; we see a full coil of rope or house instead of a series of rope/hose fragments; for the behavioral ecologists out there, it’s worth noting that we see an entire lion relaxing across the savannah, rather than two random pieces of lion laying on either side of a bush.

 Lupton seemed content to say that it’s the designer’s job to both leverage and hijack these inferences; in the world of graphic design, for example, a composition could use Gestalt laws to simulate form, establish continuity, and generate motion. Design can direct people’s attention to specific information, and simultaneously distract them from other information. Noting the phenomenon of embodied cognition, Lupton pointed out that design can engage our entire bodies, challenging us to think critically about the object before us.

Of course, design in this context extends beyond just the visual, and Lupton invoked the concept of affordances, which was beautifully handled (ha!) by Don Norman and his case study on doors. Essentially, there are perceived uses for everything we make, and what’s particularly exciting is that the response to an object might not always be what we intended. Designers don’t anticipate many affordances that users uncover, and affordances we try to build in get overlooked.

“Let your audience do some of the work for you”

comic strip showing an axe being swung; implied to have hit another person from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) via Ricky Holtz
At this point, Lupton began to discuss visual storytelling, and types of narratives that designers can craft around an action as simple as deleting a group of files; animation happens all over the page, there’s a veritable symphony of pops and crackles, and images vanish from the screen – yet, behind the scenes, the files just changed directory. That’s the importance of the story, and where all that gestalt stuff comes into play. To make these moments meaningful and help people understand what’s happening, they need enough information to fill in the blanks; think of the shower scene in the movie Psycho, or Scott McCloud’s example of an axe being swung in the gutter between comic book panels. Nobody ever gets stabbed or chopped – the user fills in the blank through auditory and visual cues left by the person who cut the film or designed the page. So drop hints, but let your audience do some of the work for you – keep them engaged, and derail them every so often to create some humor.

Ellen Lupton

Writer / Curator (New York / Baltimore)

Ellen Lupton is Senior Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. After joining the museum in 1992, she mounted her first exhibition, “Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines from Home to Office.” Since then she has organized numerous exhibitions, publications, and public programs at Cooper Hewitt, including “Beautiful Users” and “Process Lab” (December 2014 - April 2015) and "Graphic Design—Now in Production," co-organized by Cooper-Hewitt and the Walker Art Center (2012-2014) and the National Design Triennial series. Lupton also serves as director of the Graphic Design MFA Program at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) in Baltimore, where she has authored numerous books on design processes, including "Thinking with Type," "Graphic Design Thinking," and "Graphic Design: The New Basics." Her latest book is “Type on Screen” (2014). She holds a BFA from The Cooper Union (1985) and a Doctorate in Communication Design from University of Baltimore (2008). She received the AIGA Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement in 2007.

“Vision is Multisensory”

It’s funny, because despite the fundamentally visual nature of type, Lupton guided the audience through a transmedia story, interspersing video and audio to highlight the multisensory nature of vision. It doesn’t rest simply in rods and cones – it extends throughout our entire bodies, engaging time, space, and multiple senses in its quest to convey information. So, when you’re tackling your next project, take a moment to reflect on your process. Delve deeper into the sensory experience of your audience, craft experiences that will delight and engage more than just their eyes – and always, always look out for moonwalking bears.

Text — Ricky Holtz (@ayyrickay)