Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Perceptual Selectivity

This post is part of a draft for a new academic paper aimed at a graphic design journal and represents an idea-in-progress. Feel free to comment but questions on how or what next will be answered in future posts as I construct my paper.
Within an anaesthetic experience the very nature of it means that the very perception of the undergoing and doing falls below our conscious perception. We act and react to the causality as rhythmically as breathing but without a consummation of fulfilment. We may recognise we feel emotion as we experience or we may not. But to recognise and to perceive are not the same. In experience the relationship between action and the consequence of that action is given meaning through the perceiving of it. This is a cognitive action and one that selectively places the self into the experience. In recognition a signifier is enough to satisfy. A sign, a label, a familiarity that ‘this’ is what is needed to be done or undergone to move onto the ‘next’ thing is anaesthetic. Any resistance between an old or new experience is minimal. There is no call on the person to perceptually engage in an act of reconstructive doing, selecting meaning of the new experience from past experiences. It is within the placing of the self consciously within the experience that it becomes autotelic and it is this action that Visual Communication relies on within a communicational situation.

It is not a passive relationship between the graphic outcome and the viewer. The ‘aesthetics of surface’ certainly is meant to attract attention (Frascara, 2004, p85) but it is in the ‘aesthetics of use’ that the communicational power exists. It is within the perception of the graphic outcome that that object of attention’s meaning can be interpreted within the correct socio-cultural context. The perception and object are part of the same cognitive operation, they are built up together in the mind of the viewer and completed as a whole understanding. The past experiences and references to pre-understanding of the viewer are perceptually remade into a new pattern of understanding. This new experience is a meeting of the viewer with the designer in an experiential journey to meaning, and then to action. The experience of the past cannot be dismissed from this new pattern of understanding, but neither can it be dwelt upon, as the communicational situation is cognitively kinetic moving the viewer to action from perception. Perception is an act that is not reactive or unreflective. It calls for a personal act of engagement and responsively take in data from the situation to begin to understand what is unfolding. To perceive is to be immersed in the situation, to plunge (even for a fraction) into the context to see what is unfolding.

From perception comes awareness, and from perceptual selectivity comes understanding through interpretation leading to thoughtful action. This action leads to a behavioural change which is where Visual Communication has its strengths. The perception within a socio-cultural experience of undergoing and doing is causally limited. It is partly reconstructed from past experience but this become coefficient in creating new understanding and meaning to the current experience. This pre-understanding is not a bridge from one experience to another experience, but a partial expectation of outcomes that can be challenged and questioned, re-ordered and subverted. This leads to an individualisation of the current situation. Pre-understanding is a contribution that is neither a simple recollection or in its entirety subordinated to understand a new experience. This is a beginning of understanding, and perception advances like waves up a beach towards an action. The experience’s meaning is grown from the situational context, from pre-understood knowledge selectively framed by a personal socio-cultural context, toward an interpretative meaning that is pervaded emotionally throughout. This assimilation of waves toward a meaning elevates the experience beyond mere anaesthetic because the self is responsive within the unfolding experience that has eventually a culmination that is felt consciously, subconsciously and emotionally. This accumulation leads toward an objective autotelic fulfilment, that within Visual Communication is a behavioural change in the viewer. In discussing pre-understanding this segues back into a phenomenological discussion of hermeneutics, and how phenomenological interpretation can be synthesised with Visual Communication to aid the design of better interactions through a visualising valuation of the properties of an experience, long since “dismissed as unmeasurable” (McCullough, 2005, p44).


FRASCARA, J. (2004) Communication Design: Principles, Methods and Practice. New York: Allworth Press.
McCULLOUGH, M. (2005). Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Visual Communication and Exprience

This post is part of a draft for a new academic paper aimed at a graphic design journal and represents an idea-in-progress. Feel free to comment but questions on how or what next will be answered in future posts as I construct my paper.

The mere understanding of a Visual Communication graphic outcome in itself does not induce action. It is through the active interpretation of the outcome that shapes perceptual selectivity within the viewer (McCullough, 2005, p34). Through this cognitive processing, behavioural change is enacted through the viewer taking from the outcome a personal interpretation of varying strengths, dependent upon their own intellectual and socio-cultural ability. This intellectual appropriation of an action, suggested through the communicational situation created by the graphic outcome’s internal structure, happens within the communicational situation as a consummation of that very experience. When defining such an experience it is an essentially an autotelic experience that is being discussed. Psychologist Csikszentimihalyi (1990) frames two forms of experience - autotelic and exotelic (p67). These terms are derived from the Greek: telos meaning goal, auto meaning self and exo meaning outside. Csikszentimihalyi defines an autotelic experience as a self-contained experience where the reward is intrinsic to the experience itself, whilst exotelic is an experience where activities are performed for external reasons to the self. Experiences are a combination of both an internal and external elements, but it is within an autotelic experience that the optimal element is an end in itself that is intrinsically rewarding. Most experiences we have in our conscious day can be described as anaesthetic. For Dewey (1980) the description of an anaesthetic experience is one that does not begin or cease at any particular place, it is slack and discursive with no initiations or conclusions, where connections between incidental components within the experiences are unconcerning (p41). These everyday experiences are as Csikszentimihalyi names exotelic. They are external to our own existential self-determined purpose, and feature events we mechanically do as a norm of our existence.

Alternatively, an autotelic experience is an experience that in itself is self-purposeful which is analogous to a pragmatist philosophical aesthetic experience. From a pragmatist perspective an aesthetic experience is shaped not only through visuals, touch, smell, and hearing, but also from the past experiences of the individual experiencing it. But past experiences can at times be contradictory, ambiguous or complex. An aesthetic experience emerges from a lived experience, where the self can be lost in the moment but can return, feeling nourished and contented, the “irreducible totality of people acting, sensing, thinking, feeling, and making meaning in a setting, including the perception and sensation of their own actions” (McCarthy and Wright, 2004, p85). Dourish suggests from a pragmatist perspective that the world is “already filled with meaning. Its meaning is to be found in the way in which it reveals itself to us as being available for our actions” (2004, p116). The sharpness in contrast between a self-purposeful experience and everyday exotelic is immediately noticeable, even if consciously at the time it is not realised. In this sharp contrast it is impossible to combine the special qualities of the experience within the usual exotelic structure, so that the special qualities are given a status outside the everyday (p42).

So far this appears to be an intellectual process, but it is also an emotional, practical and mechanical process that together constitute integral components within experience. The complexity of these various components are interlinked and not ordered in succession during an interaction with events, people, objects and ideas. They do not assume ascendency over each other, but through the linkage move toward a culmination rather than a cessation. What is crucial here is that the culmination is not dependent upon the mechanistic component of the experience to finish, as the consummation is not wholly a conscious state. Within an aesthetic experience Dewey states that the experience is “anticipated throughout and is recurrently savored with special intensity” (p57). This type of experience is separated from the everyday anaesthetic experiences, and it is framed within this form of experiencing that a communicational situation is created by Visual Communication. As Frascara explains the act of communication is not the designer’s objective but designing the impact of that communication is (p13). The interaction between meaning and the viewer is paramount, and the interaction between visual elements within the graphic outcomes aids the reception, leading to the necessary change in behaviour. This interaction becomes a self-experience within the viewer once they take notice of the graphic outcome. How they engage making it a self-experience can be framed within a phenomenological flow proposed by Csikszentimihalyi. Dourish is aware that a phenomenological perspective framed using pragmatist aesthetics is only one perspective amongst others that has embodiment as a central focus. But he argues that phenomenology looks at “the pretheoretical, prerational world of everyday experience” (p106) making phenomenology a relevant starting point to account for the relationality between meaning and action.


CSIKSZENTIMIHALYI, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper
DOURISH, P. (2004). Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. Cambridge: MIT Press.
FRASCARA, J. (2004) Communication Design: Principles, Methods and Practice. New York: Allworth Press.
McCULLOUGH, M. (2005). Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Phenomenology of Enjoyment - notes

This post is part of a draft for a new academic paper aimed at a graphic design journal and represents an idea-in-progress. Feel free to comment but questions on how or what next will be answered in future posts as I construct my paper.

Within his work on Flow (1990) psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentimihalyi provides eight components for a phenomenology of enjoyment. These components are all (or mostly) present in a particular aesthetic experience and are:

#1 Chance of completing
The sense of enjoyment appears to sit at an interface between boredom and anxiety. To enjoy an activity there appears a need for the tension between boredom and anxiety in completing it. Based upon an individual’s existing skills if the activity is too easy a person will become bored too quickly. If it is too difficult they will feel anxious about not completing it. Therefore the enjoyment emerges out of an aesthetic experience where that tension is exciting, and the completion is possible with an application of the ‘self’ in its achievement.

#2 Concentration on actions
When a person is engaged in an experiential moment that is not anaesthetic, all other aspects of their life can be existentially forgotten for a time, as enjoyable activities command a complete focusing on that moments actions. The structured demands of that experience impose a sense of order in the person’s consciousness, in turn excluding any interference from their everyday worries and responsibilities within the duration of that same experience.

#3 clear goals
Within the experience clear goals of open-ended activities emerge out of ambiguities, but these are not superficial and simple, nor are they always preformed. The open-endedness of creative situations begin with vague goals that are subsequently fleshed out during the activity in a sense of exploration. Without an emergent clarity of goals to aim for the experience will unstructured and meander. With even initial vague goals feedback will inform of when they have been met.

#4 immediate feedback
The kind of feedback that is worked toward is valid in its symbolic message it contains. It informs us of our level of success in achieving our goals. It creates order in consciousness and strengthens the structure of the self. The feedback required by the individual is variable. The key is that as long as the feedback is logically related to our goal, any feedback can become enjoyable - even feedback that isn’t positive.

#5 effortless involvement
Once in an enjoyable experience the desire and purpose is not to peak and to come out of the Flow of the experience - to return to a conscious self. A state of effortless involvement is enacted but this not all that it feels. To feel that, on reflection, the involvement has been effortless does still involve skilled performance. A lapse in concentration returns the individual to a state of self-consciousness, and self-evaluation - the state of Flow is interrupted.

#6 sense of control over self
Enjoyment in leisure activities is distinct from mundane everyday activities where any bad things can happen. Within an autotelic experience where the end is itself rewarding, the enjoyment is consuming without anxiety of failure. There is a paradox here as there is a sense of control over the self - or a lack of worry of about losing control that we do not have in our everyday existence.

#7 concern for self disappears
The loss of self-consciousness and concern for their self during an experience, is due to little opportunity for the self to feel threatened. Enjoyable activities have clear goals, stable rules and the challenge within the skills of the individual. Comfort zones can thus be pushed where the challenge is enjoyable. The loss of self-consciousness does not involve a loss of self or of consciousness - but just a loss of consciousness of the self.

#8 Sense of time is altered
The freedom from the tyranny of objective time when in a state of complete involvement is exhilarating. The intense concentration an individual finds themselves in when absorbed in an enjoyable experience. Timing may still be objectively the same, but the sensation of passing of time is altered. It may be perceived as speeding up or slowing down despite pacing of actions or goals.

In these phenomenological components the four existentials of spatiality, corporeality, temporality and relationality manifest themselves. It is within this phenomenological space that Visual Communication can connect and consociate with Interaction Design by providing rich abstracted concepts to visually develop the discipline further toward the design of better interactions.


CSIKSZENTIMIHALYI, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper