Sensual and Perceptual Theories of visual communication

  • “Sensations” are raw data from nerves transmitted to the brain.
  • “Perceptions” are meanings concluded after the stimuli are received

– Drawn from prior experiences, comparison with other senses, stored images, etc.

Five theories to explain the way we see:

  • Sensual

– Gestalt

– Constructivism

– Ecological

  • Perceptual

– Semiotic

– Cognitive

Sensual theory: Gestalt

  • “The whole is different from the sum of its parts.”
  • Perception is the result of organizing elements into groups, according to four (4) laws:

– Similarity

– Proximity

– Continuation

– Common fate

Sensual theory: Constructivism

  • Minor clarification to gestalt theory, attributing active perception and eye movement in constructing an image

Sensual theory: Ecological

  • Use real people in real-world environments, not eye-tracking equipment in a lab
  • We interpret depth from light and shadow cues, and no high-level brain function is required
  • Many perceptions about size and depth require no “mental calculation”

Perceptual theory: Semiotic

  • The study of “signs”
  • Signs can be any physical representation, action, object, or image that stand for something else

Three types of signs, with different speeds of comprehension:

  • Iconic: easiest to understand, as they most closely resemble the thing they represent. Examples: restroom “people”, olympic sport icons, some road signs (falling rocks, slippery road)
  • Indexical: harder to interpret than icons, but still a logical connection to the thing they represent. Examples: footprint, smoke, fingerprints, crumbs

– Symbols: most abstract; no logical or representational connection to the thing they represent, therefore they must be taught and learned. Examples: letters, words, numbers, colors, gestures, flags, costumes, logos, music

  • because they are abstract, symbols can be combined to form new meanings, sometimes unrelated to the originals
  • most flexible, and most powerful messages involve manipulation of universally understood signs

Perceptual theory: Cognitive

  • We arrive at perceptions through conclusions drawn from mental operations
  • Memory: works both ways — images are interpreted by recalling stored images, and images we see spark memories of other things (seeing the mailbox reminds us we have to pay our bills)
  • Projection: we project meaning onto what we see, based on mental state, personality, and other factors (inkblots, clouds, two people whispering and laughing)
  • Expectation: we often see what we expect to see, overlooking details that don’t fit our mental model of what “should” be there (we have trouble proofreading our own writing)
  • Selectivity: we filter out details that aren’t relevant at the time, to avoid overload (looking for a friend in a red hat in a crowd)
  • Habituation: we ignore stimuli that we see often. One key to creativity is to look at familiar things in a new way. Conversely, unfamiliar stimuli help us think in new ways (go to a new place to think up new ideas)
  • Salience: we notice stimuli that are somehow relevant or have significance (hungry people notice restaurants)
  • Dissonance: we can only process one thing at a time. Distractions force us to avoid processing other stimuli (turn down the radio when we’re looking for a house).
  • Culture: many factors affect how we interpret visual stimuli — ethnicity, age, gender, socio-economic status, work, location, education, nationality, etc. (the image of Uncle Sam means many different things, depending on culture)



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