Our eyes are organs that are sensitive to light. When light enters the eye, it passes through the transparent lens and is focused onto the retina at the back of the eye. The retina contains light sensitive cells called rods and cones, which convert the incoming light into electrical signals. The brain receives these signals through the optic nerve, and the brain resolves these as imagery.
Through our lenses, we receive an upside down image on our retina that is put right-side-up by our brain; this is the first operation that we see, but it is not the only one: in order to interpret the information coming through light, we need to make assumptions and connections with forms and images we have seen before. This interpretation adds to the complexity of vision, in that objectivity may be lost or affected by the understanding and ideas imposed on the signals of light.
Although it may not be the first of our senses to develop through evolution, it is arguably the most important. More of our brain is used to process vision than any other sense. In addition, it is the first sense most people go to in order to understand the world. We use our eyes to see objects, but we also use our eyes to read and interpret language and data, and this sense is used nearly continuously throughout the day. Perhaps vision is not a necessity, but it would be a hindrance for many to lose access to it.
We are able to see things when there is light. This light might be inherent in the object, like a lightbulb or a phone screen, or it may be reflected off of it, like a piece of paper or a brick wall. We are able to capture understanding from the variation of the light–not only are colors important, but variations of shadow are crucial to understand the form and character of objects. When using vision, our eyes collapse the three-dimensional world into two-dimensional projections, so every other variable available to understand the sense is used in order to get a true understanding of that viewed.
We use vision to allow us to passively understand the world, but we also use it in combination with other senses and logic to create, analyze, and evaluate. We can use other senses to do these things, but to see is instantaneous and can be done from afar, without touch and even beyond sound. We can easily see the stars and planets in the sky, but we aren’t able to hear or touch these from Earth. So, the sense can work at distance, unlike most other senses.
These qualities of vision are helpful to experience the present and possibilities of the future, but vision is also very important for the past–we use vision to intake information, and we use memory to hold what we have learned. Much of our memory is based around vision, and even though we cannot actually replay the true images in our brain, we are able to imagine and recollect the imagery. Because memory partially relies on vision and our memory changes over time, there are interesting games we can play to explore what our imagination is able to do with the visual information that is used to communicate. We cannot be completely objective, because we have an interpretation for everything that enters or leaves our brain.
Although we use vision constantly, we can use a constructive method of interpretation with sight that allows us to interact with the world to build and change the environment. There is a skill called formal analysis that allows us to understand things through vision by breaking down the imagery or form into constituent parts and understanding what those elements do. These can include the definition of the elements and understanding any actions of these, but also of the shape, direction, and speed of these parts. In this way, we discern meaning relative to our experience and position.
We can try to rely on memory of our vision to interpret, but this ensures the image and meaning change over time, as our memories change over time–we do not hold a continuous snapshot in our head, like a computer. Besides remembering, we can also utilize technologies we have, such as cameras, but also ways to light an object. For example, how does the element appear with infrared vs standard illumination? Ultraviolet? Do we use one light or two, and what is the direction of these lights? How the object is lit allows an understanding of form, as mentioned above. What other optics or sensors can we use to interpret information? Light sensors, infrared distance meters, and laser diffraction are all possible alternate ways to use light.
Vision is both active and passive, physical sensing with the eye and also the processing of the image in the brain. We can affect how people see by playing with how things are viewed and by making associations in the brain. By doing either or a combination of these we are capable of providing new experiences.
We can change how people view things physically with light, color, and shadow, as well as the forms and patterns that they see. But, we can also change the experience using optics and effects such as translucency, transparency, and superimposition. With optics we are able to make imagery clearer, fuzzier, bigger, multiply and mirror, and change shape. Lenses and mirrors can make most of these occur, but beyond this, we can also superimpose imagery and introduce effects with opacity and light. Furthermore, the way the imagery is shown can affect the meaning. Images that are projected can come alive in low light areas, and the printed image is a more passive but ever-present object.
In the brain, we can change meaning by association with other elements, as well as techniques such as those used in propaganda. Conjoining multiple elements, creating a tableau, pulls and transforms meanings. To place enjoyed or beloved imagery next to something with a negative connotation will change the meaning for both. To have a positive image next to something neutral very likely will boost the esteem of the object to something that is appreciated. Beyond these methods, vision can be affected through changing the chemistry of the brain.
Vision is a very important and strong sense in our day to day lives. Almost all activities require or rely on sight. Although it is possible to develop without the sense of vision, it could make some environments and events weaker. Because it is one of our primary senses, people lock to the visual and can perceive information nearly instantaneously. It is not a sense that requires much translation for our minds to get the gist of the meaning. Furthermore, vision allows us to communicate over distance. Light is the fastest moving element in our existence, and as long as we have visual access to this, without obstructions, we can communicate efficiently and quickly over long distances.
Vision is used for all of the levels of thinking in our lives. We can look at Bloom’s Taxonomy and see how vision is a tool for these levels. Sight allows us to provide descriptions and remember objects and events. We gather information with our eyes to heighten understanding. We use what we have seen to develop or change something else. Reviewing elements, we are able to analyze how and how well things work. In addition, we look at the results of actions, and we are able to justify content. Finally, we use our sight in combination with our skills at analysis to create new things.
Vision is the primary sense when it comes to most forms of design. Of course, graphic design relies on it, but so do each of the other areas. The immediacy and familiarity make it the first sense. People carry memories of imagery and forms that they can put together to create new meanings. Furthermore, there are similar associations with imagery across a culture, so one is able to tell a story or provide information through an image. Not only are pictures and forms part of vision, but language is as well. It is a code, a system, to provide information, and the letters and numbers that compose the language are in fact derived from pictures. But, when this imagery is viewed as a series that provides information, which can bring about new meanings, we see that vision allows the elevation of form from what is a dumb, simple pictogram with a single meaning to something that can nearly describe or provide all or any meaning. Finally, so much of our language is biased toward the sense. Some examples of sayings that push vision: let’s see what happens, look into it, watch out, do a review, and the vision for the product.
Because vision is so relied upon, a good strategy in design is to not address site as the primary sense when experiencing a space or building. There are several other senses to explore instead. Ultimately, we don’t need to ignore sight, but initially it could be better to highlight another sense to heighten the phenomenological experience in the built environment. Because vision is arguably the most used sense, the designer should ignore it temporarily and focus on other sensory modes.
To engage the senses requires the designer to turn off vision, use other receptors, and use vision as the last of the senses. Furthermore, like with light design, designing with the senses is best when turning all senses off and then slowly, methodically adding sensory experiences to give a specific idea or tell a story. The architect becomes a curator, pulling senses and trying to communicate certain ideas through those senses. Again, doing this, at first: ignore the visual, make sensory interventions, then add vision. This is how we create a better, more experiential design.
To use only vision is what most designers already do. Some might say this is fully explored, and there is nothing left to learn from this. It is important to learn and explore all the elements of visual design, such as line, color, and pattern, but then it is time to move beyond these rudiments. Is less more? Probably in this instance. Instead of going directly to the graphic or visual strategies, define what the purpose or meaning is, then choose the senses.
What happens if we don’t use vision at all? What other senses should we use? The question should be, what are we trying to evoke? If we are trying to provide a sense of excitement, we should use sound and touch, in lieu of vision. Of the touch senses, some of the best choices to evoke excitement are pressure, cold thermoception, tension, stretch, vibration and equilibrioception. By using these, the experience could be much greater than relying solely on vision with strong colors, patterns, and linework to provide a sense of excitement. One of the great results of not using sight is the individual cannot see what is about to happen, appearance is not broadcast, instead sensations come out of nowhere.
It is clear that vision is overused, and it could be better to design for the other senses, not including sight. However, what if there are new ways to use vision? What would those be? Can light or color convey emotion, and are these emotions similar among most of the population, or at least, the users? Is blue always sadness? Is red always aggressive? Is it as easy as that? Perhaps, but are there new ways to use sight to affect design? For the sense itself, probably not, but how we use the sense to tell a story or create a mystery or quest for the user through using gamification and teaching strategies is very likely.
We can use the vision design methods in existing structures, as well as new projects. To improve experiential design through sight requires analysis and evaluation of the existing conditions, then we must ask what is the purpose or story we would like to convey. After these have been completed, we can introduce, slowly and carefully, visual cues and information to project the desired meaning. Because vision relies on the reflection of light and color, any form or surface can be updated and designed to help tell the story–it does not only have to be traditional forms of textiles and graphic design. Visual information is and can be on any building element, such as a column, ceiling, floor, or furniture–the location is only limited by the designer’s imagination.
So, how do we develop the idea slowly and carefully? After we have the story or design intent worked out, we can determine how we want to convey this visually and on what elements or spaces we would like to place the graphics or lighting. Then, we remove all visual components, leaving nothing to see or look at–this is the baseline, and then we build up from this. At first, we only explore one visual idea on one element or space, however after going through this a couple more times, we can build up or diminish the effects or presentation of the visual program. After finding a balance with the sight work, we can evaluate the work, explore other senses, or leave the project alone. It is important not to overstimulate the user with too much of visual experience or any other sensory experience.