Monday, August 20

abstraction in the service of clarity

A certain book I read while on vacation reminded me of a subject I desire to discuss. The subject is "abstraction" and how, contrary to popular belief, it can be used to clarify things.

Allow me to demonstrate. This is a face right?.

No it isn't. It's a photo of a face. Wrong again, it is a scan of the photo of the face. Just a bunch of pixels!

There are many things that differentiate this from an actual living face. It doesn't move, it's very small and it has no color. But our eye, or rather our mind doesn't see all of that. Our mind simply sees a face. This is testament to the mind's extraordinary ability of interpretation. But it's only the beginning. Look at this image.

What do you see? A face? Aha! This time it is a scan of a drawing of a face and there are even more things that differentiate it from an actual face. It has far less detail!

Now look at this image.

There is even less detail yet you still instantly recognize it as a face! It is a far less specific but a face nonetheless.

The image below looks absolutely nothing like a face! It's a circle two dots and a line!

But you see a face. Try not to see a face. Go ahead, I dare you. You will find that it is next to impossible! This demonstrates the fascinating power of iconic abstraction. Removing detail and simplifying an image transforms it into less of an image and into more of a concept, an idea, an icon - sometimes called symbol. Amplification through simplification. The first photo I showed is quite easily recognized as a face. A stranger's face. A young white male's face. Whereas the above image is universal. It could be anyone's face! It could even be you. Incidentally, Scott McCloud theorizes that it is you. I recommend his books for all who would like to learn more about all things visual. (see link below)

Can we further abstract the face but still have the image be instantly recognizable as a face? The answer is yes.

This is as far as we can go down the line of iconic abstraction. A bunch of lines that means "face". It is not as universal because a certain amount of education is needed to decipher the symbols. But the lesson is learned: words are the ultimate iconic abstraction. So, what does this all mean? How does knowing this help the designer?

Designers should have a very solid grasp of iconic abstraction. Logos for instance need to be very simple yet instantly recognizable and memorable. Using iconic abstraction one can make very complex subjects universally clear. With just a few lines designers can convey a message that will quickly be assimilated across language and cultural barriers. Also, because iconic imagery requires a higher level of viewer participation, or more interpretation, I would argue that they are more immersive and memorable, meaningful and thus wield more power.

Iconic imagery is actually very necessary to everyday life. What does the following icon mean?

It means relief to those of us who travel in foreign lands.

Here are other examples of everyday icons or symbols.

Here's a little exercise, the next time you drive around town count how many icons you see in thirty minutes and post your count here. I've got a bet riding on it so help me out here ;)

If you who wish to learn more about the subject and about art in general I recommend picking up a copy of Scott McCloud's Understand Comics. It is a book that has fascinated me for many years and has practically changed how I see everything.


1 comment:

Shayla said...

Great post, excellent subject and a fascinating book