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Learning to observe, and teaching others to see

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2014. Learning to observe and teaching others to see. Intercom March: 19–22.

You see, [Watson,] but you do not observe.”—Sherlock Holmes

For those of us with functional eyes, vision is our primary means of acquiring information about our world. We use our vision every waking moment, but few of us receive training in how to observe, probably because things we do without thinking seem easy; we therefore take them for granted. But observing is a learned skill, and one that we can learn. In her book On Looking, Alexandra Horowitz tells us of the voyage of discovery that began when she asked a series of unconventional guides to lead her through the process of learning to see: a geologist, a typographer, an illustrator, a naturalist, a wildlife researcher, an urban sociologist, a doctor, a blind woman, a sound designer, and her dogs. These guides saw the same world in surprisingly different ways, both because their training taught them to see details that others missed and because they looked at the world with a different focus.

Although this article was inspired by a 40-minute film about how designer Inge Druckrey teaches her design students, Horowitz’s book provided a very different series of insights. In this article, I’ll summarize and expand on some of the key points from both sources, in search of insights into how to become a more effective communicator.

See—then look beyond—the signs

Without training, most of us recognize objects based on the ensemble of their characteristics; when we learn to drive, we learn to recognize Stop signs, not to look for eight-sided red objects containing the word “Stop” in white characters, mounted on a vertical stem and positioned 7 feet off the ground. Learning to observe begins with an effort to perceive objects as a collection of parts with different properties: these parts have a shape (octagonal sign, linear post) and orientation (vertical), among other characteristics, and contrast with their environment (dark red background versus pure white text versus the green of vegetation). For purposes such as driving a car, these details are irrelevant; only the gestalt (the overall message that results from these characteristics) is important. But for designers who want to create such images, the details are crucial.

We can learn about those details through semiotics, the study of “signs” (visual indicators) and what they signify. Learning to observe involves learning to identify the components of an image that convey meaning (the signifiers), then considering how they support specific communication goals. Each goal leads to different visual requirements; for example, a heading must stand out sufficiently from the surrounding text to signify the beginning of a section; headings must therefore be larger and more visually prominent (e.g., darker) than the surrounding text. In contrast, tables must organize information into rows and columns, thereby grouping closely related information and separating it from less-related information; tables must therefore use lines (rules) or white space to provide grouping and separation. As a final example, we know that photographs and drawings attract the reader’s attention, but in a screen full of such images, it may be necessary to use movement, color, or their combination to make any one image stand out—or to not use such properties if we want to prevent a less relevant image from standing out.

Knowing the properties required by communication lets us choose among various design options that can provide those properties. One good way to learn these options is to choose a visual topic (e.g., color, negative space) and devote a few minutes daily to examining your surroundings in terms of that property. For example, place a glossy commercial magazine beside a user manual and compare their typography and use of white space; list the commonalities and differences between these elements. Why did the magazine designer chose one approach and the technical communicator choose another? How did this choice affect your impression of the page and your ability to read it? When you can make these distinctions, try explaining them to colleagues; the best way to learn whether you truly understand something is to try explaining it to someone else. If you can’t explain because you or your audience or both lack the right vocabulary, demonstrate.

The modern world is cacophonous, so it requires discipline to focus this closely and avoid distractions. Finding a peaceful, quiet place away from the hubbub can help. But even when you can’t escape the hubbub, creating some physical distance is still useful. For example, you can deconstruct a page layout by taping it to a wall and gradually moving away until only the largest and most dominant objects remain visible; move closer when you’re ready to try detecting the details that combine to create these objects. (You can achieve the same effect with an online document by changing the zoom level.) One thing you might not immediately notice is how our expertise with computer monitors and printed pages leads us to define things by edges and boundaries, when in fact the world is a much larger, open-ended place. The unbounded possibilities that lie outside the screen or page can be both intimidating and liberating; you can’t think outside the box if you don’t know the box exists. And the world outside that box provides important context for the broader environment in which we use the box. Explicitly seeing that world reminds us that the context in which people use our information may be as important as the information itself.

Note that the opposite is also true: you can zoom in on the smallest elements or crop an image by changing the window size until only a subset of the elements is visible, thereby making it impossible to see the larger elements that contain them. Though you lose the overall context, you obtain a clearer image of the smaller context of a specific situation.

Jacques Bertin’s classic book on the semiology of graphics provides a thorough immersion in the “visual grammar” that defines how images convey meaning. It’s pricey and not widely available, but you should be able to obtain a copy through interlibrary loan. I’ve provided some more accessible suggestions in the bibliography. My series of information design articles in Intercom also provides a good starting point for exploration.

Assemble the elements to create a message

Once you develop skill dissecting the goals that an image must accomplish and the component parts that let you achieve those goals, you can begin crafting your own visual messages. Journalists use the five W’s to learn the important aspects of a story, and the visual equivalent is equally helpful:

You can deconstruct images in other ways; the power of the five W’s is that it’s so familiar and therefore so easy to apply in a range of contexts.

Answering these questions lets you define the elements of an image you can use to convey a message; in so doing, you take what was formerly implicit (unseen) and make it explicit. For example, once you understand how layering works, you can use objects in the foreground to obscure objects in the background, thereby creating a sense of depth and order. You can break even the most complex images into simple elements. What could be simpler than a dot? Yet dots can create the complexity of a photographic halftone or pointillist art. Lines are only slightly more complicated, yet they provide similar potential for complexity; consider, for example, the art of engraving. Line drawings can communicate almost anything a photograph can convey, particularly when combined with dots to provide texture.

When you look for meaning in an image, your thought process changes from defining what things are (e.g., dots versus lines) to understanding their function. One line may define the boundaries of an object, another may pass behind that object to imply depth (layering), and yet another may connect an image to a complex group of lines (the characters in a typeface) that represent text, allowing us to join the visual part of an image to its explanation. Learn to consciously ask and answer questions about the elements of an image: what do you see, what does it mean, and how can you confirm your interpretation? It won’t take long before you begin doing this without much thought for simple images, and eventually apply the technique to complex images. Then you can try the more challenging task of asking how you feel about an image and why. Images have an important emotional content, and you should never ignore your gut reaction; how you feel about an image determines how you respond to and interpret it. (I once chose not to purchase a book that I wanted to read because the typeface was so cramped and fussy I knew it would ruin my reading experience.)

Although the distancing and focusing techniques I described in the previous section are useful, neither should blind you to the things that become visible or invisible when you change focus. A trivial example would be determining the best way to convey the visual characteristics of a button or dial on a camera, while remembering to preserve clues to that gadget’s position on the camera. This is part of a larger process: asking yourself which elements an image requires, and which can be eliminated without loss of meaning (i.e., abstraction). You can learn this skill by comparing a photograph with a line drawing of the same image; listing the elements of the photo the illustrator omitted reveals which elements of the image (those that remain) are important. When you examine an image, your first impression often reveals which details your subconscious mind prioritized. Recognizing how these elements drew your eye lets you use the same technique to create emphasis in your own designs.

Understanding these processes reveals why visual consistency is so important: once your eye learns to look for specific visual elements or patterns, all similar objects stand out, making it easy to look for them. This is why the typeface, type size, and type format in a well-designed map are scrupulously consistent, as are the line patterns, sizes, and colors. Once you learn the visual conventions, you can search for specific combinations of visual characteristics to easily find highways while ignoring smaller roads, or vice versa.

Learning to observe

The human eye moves around subconsciously, constantly refocusing on different parts of the visual field and seeking meaning. This is why we can identify headings without consciously looking for 14-point Arial Black text. Learning to observe requires us to change what is initially subconscious into a conscious act: we must learn to move our eyes around an image in search of its component elements. With practice, that process becomes subconscious once more, and we can instead pay attention to the gestalt rather than the elements that created it—but we can consciously examine the individual elements again when we need to learn how the gestalt was created.

Remembering how we learned to write provides a clue to how you can learn to observe: Initially, we learn to combine multiple strokes of a pen to create an individual letter. Next, we learn to fit letters between the ruled lines in a notebook, which teaches us how to make all letters the same size, how to combine them into words and sentences, and how to estimate the number of letters that will fit on a line. Initially, these difficult acts of spatial perception and planning require intense focus, but as adults, we do this with little conscious effort. We tend to think of the subconscious as something separate from our self, but really, it’s just another aspect of who we are. Like any other skill, using it improves with practice focused on the key elements of the skill.

Learning and practice change how we see the world. Wendy Smith, writing in The American Scholar, notes how the best novels teach us new ways to see the world. In turn, as we age and acquire experience, we learn to see the novels in a new way. (This is also true of nonfiction.) The cycle repeats each time we reread a book, increasing the depth of our understanding of the book and the parts of our world it describes. We can achieve that effect in technical communication by returning to some of the seminal works that we’ve read in the past, or by reviewing designs that we like to determine what we’ve learned since the last time we did this: are the old design tools still effective, or have we learned something new that will let us improve the communication? By striving to improve the communication, might the context teach us better ways to present information, or might the information teach us something new about its context?

Teaching others to see

One particularly interesting challenge is how to teach our audience what they should look for when they use our documentation or the products that it documents. Researchers have shown that when an expected or sought after image is absent, we have a harder time seeing the image that is actually there. This is not a mere theoretical curiosity. As Bialic and McLeod, writing in Scientific American, remind us, “if you already think you know the answer, you will not judge the evidence objectively. Instead you will notice evidence that supports the opinion you already hold, evaluate it as stronger than it really is and find it more memorable than evidence that does not support your view.” This phenomenon can literally blind us to other things we could or should be seeing. One thing Horowitz’s book made clear to me is just how differently people see the same world; it reminded me that few of my readers will look at the things I’m describing from my perspective and that sometimes I’ll need to explicitly teach them what I want them to see.

A typical example for technical communicators might be when a software interface changes between versions, as in the case of replacing the familiar text-based menus of Microsoft Word with the (initially) hated ribbon interface. The largest problem was not that the ribbon was inherently harder to use, but rather that Microsoft made no effort to provide users of the software who expected menus with a clear transition to the radically different ribbon interface. Preserving the menus and supplementing them with a wizard or an online tutorial that showed how the old menus mapped to the new ribbon would have eased the transition to the new interface.

Want to learn more about how to observe? Scott McCloud provides a great starting point in Understanding Comics. Want to learn more about how to create? John McWade of Before and After magazine provides brilliant lessons in how to think visually and construct elegant but highly functional designs. These lessons will give you the vocabulary and the cognitive tools to think about the characteristics of effective design, discuss them with experts, and perhaps even begin creating effective designs yourself. Though I can barely draw a straight line in graphics software, I’ve learned how to talk the talk and explain what I need to accomplish so that when I work with designers, we can work together productively. And increasingly, practice lets me accomplish the same results myself.


Bertin, J. 1983. Semiology of graphics. Diagrams, networks, maps. (Translated from the original 1973 French version by W.J. Berg.) University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

Bilalic, M.; McLeod, P. 2014. Why good thoughts block better ones. Scientific American March:75–79.

Horowitz, A. 2013. On looking. Eleven walks with expert eyes. Scribner’s, 308 p.

Klosowski, T. 2012. How to develop Sherlock Holmes-like powers of observation and deduction.

Konnikova, M. 2013. Mastermind: how to think like Sherlock Holmes. Viking, 288 p.

McCloud, S. 1994. Understanding comics: the invisible art. William Morrow, 224 p.

Smith, W. 2014. The novels don’t change, but we do. The American Scholar Winter:114-118.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved