Monday, June 29, 2009

Motivation and Attention: Emotional Reaction to Color (Part 1)

As a photography student, I was recently reminded of the important role emotions have with regard to color. I have adapted my photo shoots to take place at or shortly after sunrise or just before sunset; these times yield some of my best photos. I'm sure that many of you have had similar experiences. Prof. Nancy Gall (Riverside Community College, City Campus, Riverside, CA) challenged us to capture photos that incorporated different colors in our photos and then explain the emotions that they evoked. As I did so, I was taken back to my grad school days where I studied these phenomenon in a different context. This photo experience from this class let me integrate my understanding the perceptual psychology of color with my photography.

There is a complex process which mediates the viewer's responses to our photos. These involve both the dynamics of the sensory responses within the eye and our interpretation ('perception') of those colors. While these dynamics are beyond the present posting, we will deal with them in a future posting. For now, let's just say that the color that we capture in our photos triggers an emotional response in our minds and direct our attention to appropriate elements within the photo. When a color triggers certain emotional reactions, we tend to react to them in appropriate ways — motivated to act in accordance with our learning and culture.

Basic to this understanding is the realization that we respond to the perceived color, not just the physical sensation of color. We are all probably aware that some colors are considered 'warm' while others are considered 'cool' — the exact applications of these labels to specific colors depend to a large extent on one's cultural mileu, our individual learning, and our native language. Therefore, 'red' in some contexts signals an emotional response of excitement or sexuality while in a difference context it may trigger a fight-or-flight response. So, to understand the effect of color in our photos will direct the viewer's attention to those colors that tend to be pre-potent in that individual and culture. This helps explain why we consider some photos exciting while others consider them 'ho hum'.

Let's take some time now to examine some of these emotional responses associated with color. We will start with the Black and White set that focus on tonality and luminosity factors and then move on to the examination of the primary colors associated with the mixing of light ('additive' mixing). In the next posting, we will extend this examination to the secondary and some tertiary colors as well as some of the color relationships ('schemes') that may come into the act. So let's get started...

Tonality and Luminescence: Using Black and White

Black and White is the color system that most of us photographers began using in our formal photographic training. Why? Probably the most important reason was that color film required an expensive, complex process while the Black/White film processing was relatively straight forward. Beyond that, the use of Black/White film required us to look at the scene with a view of tonality changes and the use of light and shadows to create an impacting image. The emotional effects of these basic colors tend to be at the two extremes of the spectrum of light mixing, so let's see just how...

Black... Black represents the absence of light of any of the three primary colors. It exudes authority and power. It is stylish and timeless. It also implies submission, but the wearer may seem aloof or evil. Furthermore, black may be overpowering and is not always considered trustworthy. As a background, it will set off other colors in the foreground.

Emotional terms associated with Black:
power, sexuality, sophistication, formality, elegance, wealth, mystery, fear, evil, unhappiness, depth, style, sadness, remorse, anger, death, serious, heavy, classic, dynamic, expensive

White... White represents the full, equal presence of all three primary colors. It symbolizes innocence and purity. It also is associated with summer and indicates light. Furthermore, it tends to be neutral and goes with anything. However, pure white can cause glare and produce optical fatigue. Above all, it represents the absence of objects ('white space').

Emotional terms associated with White:
reverence, purity, simplicity, cleanliness, peace, humility, precision, innocence, youth, marriage, purity, honesty, pristine, pure, bright

If we are looking at a grayscale mode, we can also have intermediate values — shades of gray. The emotional concomitants of grey have not been studied as thoroughly as has black or white. Therefore, the most we can say about gray and emotion is that it elicits the feel of business, is cold, and tends to be distinctive.

Basic Light Mixing — The Primary Colors

When looking at the response of the eye to color, there are three basic colors to which the cones respond: red, green and blue. These are also the pigments that color film and our digital sensors respond to when we capture an image. As we examine the effects of these primary colors, we generally conceptualize these colors as existing around a circle — the Color Mix. Here is an example...

The non-overlapping spots of light correspond to the three primary colors that lay equidistant around a color circle. These are on red, green and blue. This color example represents the 'additive' colors that are appropriate to mixing light; a different example is required when we consider 'subtractive' color mixing that must be used with pigments.

So, lets start our examine the emotions associated with these primary colors...

Red... Red is on the lower end of the visible light spectrum. It is probably the most emotionally-charged color and has been found to stimulate the pituitary gland to produce the hormones that trigger the body's flight-or-fight response. It is the sexiest ot all colors and is more potent at attention-getting than any of the other colors. Being a warm color, it energizes and makes the heart beat faster and increases the respiration rate. Most importantly, it is the color of love and used for Valentine's Day.

Emotional terms associated with Red:
love, danger, speed, strength, violence, anger, emergency response, stop, negativity, excitement, heat, exertion, passion, provocative, dynamic

Green... Green is in the middle of the visual light spectrum. It tends to symbolize nature and is the most often cited 'favorite' color. It is the easiest color on the eye — a calming and refreshing color. Dark Green reflects masculinity and maturity while Blue-Green elicits pleasant responses.

Emotional terms associated with Green:
nature, environment, health, good luck, renewal, youth, vigor, spring, generosity, fertility, jealousy, inexperience, envy, misfortune, growth, positivity, organic, comforting, soothing, refreshing, freshness

Blue... Blue is at the upper end of the visual light spectrum. It tends to elicit the opposite reaction than red and calms the body by triggering the brain into producing claming chemicals (hormones and/or neurotransmitters). It slows the pulse and lowers the body's temperature. It is the color of business (think IBM). Being a 'cool' color, it can be depressing (think of the 'blues'). On its positive side, it elicits stability and encourages intellect. On the negative side, it feels cold and unfriendly.

Emotional terms associated with Blue:
peace, tranquility, calm, stability, harmony, unity, trust, truth, confidence, conservatism, security, cleanliness, order, loyalty, sky, water, cold, technology, depression, constant, quiet, serene, dependable, reliable, committed, trustworthy

Emotional terms associated with Dark Blue:
stability, calm, trust, maturity

Emotional terms associated with Light Blue:
youthfulness, masculinity, coolness

We have finished the first installment of our examination of the emotional concomitants of color. In the next posting, we will continue this examination by looking at the secondary and tertiary colors as well as color schemes. Join us on that adventure...

Friday, June 26, 2009

Motivation and Attention: Gestalt Principles of Perceptual Organization

What Draws our attention? And, how does this attention leads to enhanced motivation? That's what we are going to deal with in the next several posts to this discussion. This is a topic that fascinated a group of psychologists starting in the 1920s. They viewed the "whole as being greater than the sum of its parts..." It was based on the ideas of Goethe, Kant and Mach; these thoughts were systematized by Christian von Ehrenfils. This mode of thinking about perception became known as "Gestalt" and was especially focused on visual perceptual phenomenon.

These principles become especially important for those of us specializing in the visual arts. Painters have employed them. Sculptures have used them. And, in more recent history, Photographers have adapted them to create more compelling images. While the 'fine artists' have used them to make their images more interesting, the commercial photographer depend upon them to attract the viewer to the products being sold. Just look at the photos in the windows of fast food restaurants or on menus or in magazine ads to find evidence of this. And their purpose? To get you to select and buy their product — and, of course, more of that product if possible. Impulse buying is the bane to any shopper's existence!

Just a note before we start. In psychology, there is a difference between what we see, termed 'sensations', and that we think we see, termed 'perception'. Sensation is based upon our sense organs and are dependent upon the structure of those organs. Perception, on the other hand, is based on how our brain 'understands' these perceptions; this process incorporates past experience, 'memory' with the 'sensation' to create the 'perception.' If you think about it, this is the reason you must consider the audience for your artwork or photograph, since you want to build upon the base of shared experiences and memories found in that group. That is why ads intended for the teen audience is different from those ads targeted at the 20-35 year olds, and still different from the elder populations. Isn't this the essential difference between the "Jay Leno" show as opposed to the "Conan O'Brien" show?

So why study these Gestalt principles of perceptual organization? Because the underlay the path to more effective visual art and, in my case, photographs. So, let's take a brief look at these various principles...

Principles of Perceptual Organization:

Similarity... People look for patterns in objects and these patterns are based on objects that look similar. The corollary of this principle ('anomaly') is any object that differs from a pattern will stand out. This different object will then draw our attention in a drawing or a photograph. Art Wolfe often uses this principle in his photos to attract attention to the one object that differs from the pattern.

Continuation... Our eyes move through an object and continue to another because the 'flowing' object directs our attention to the second object. Logos use this principle to lead your eye to the company name. This also is used by photographers by employing leading lines, S-curves, diagonal lines to focus our attention to the object in the photo.

Closure... When an object is incomplete, our eyes perceive the whole by filling in the missing parts of the object. This is often found in photos to create an image that is not 'really' there. This is why objects arranged in a scene can attract attention because these objects form a triangle or other regular arrangement. This attracts attention and focuses the eye to essential elements of in the image.

Proximity... When elements are placed together they tend to create a new element that is 'perceived' to be there, but is only seen as there due to our past perceptual experience. An example of this principle would be a school of fish or a flock of geese. The resultant, group object can draw attention more than individual, scattered animals. Likewise, when individual objects form another familiar object, then our attention and perceptual is directed to that derived object. This is an element found in many renaissance artworks.

Figure and Ground... Some objects are composed in such a way as to take the perceived form of two different objects, depending on what we perceive as the object. The 'Ground' (Background object) is differentiated from the 'Figure' (Foreground object), but in this perceptual context, the sub-objects flip positions as a function of our attention shifts. This ambiguity of serves to focus our attention on this object and makes the composition more potent.

Perceptual Triggers

All of these elements that trigger our perception tend to potentiate our attention to the artwork or photography in front of us. These factors, individually or in combination make our photographs stronger and motivate the viewer to attend to them for a longer time. This increased attention and direction of our focus is what differentiates a "good," effective ad from otherwise "so-so" or "bad," ineffective ad. Likewise this attention differentiates an effective from an ineffective photography.

By understanding these dynamics, we can begin to compose better images both in the camera (not to be neglected) and in the image editor (a secondary process). During the latter, you can only enhance the composition in limited ways. Good camera images and good editing will enable you to create attention-getting photos that build on the above principles.

My challenge to you is to look at some of your images that you consider "good" and see which of these elements are in those images. Do your "outstanding" images have more of these elements or these elements used more effectively. Let me know what you find...

Next Week: We will continue to examine how our viewers' attention is attracted to our photos by evoking emotional responses through the use of colors. Join us for that examination...

Motivation and Attention: An introduction

What makes one class or program more interesting and motivating than another? As a university professor, I constantly faced the challenge of how to make classes exciting and motivating for my students. A a computer trainer, I was faced by much the same problem with different populations of workers who needed to acquire skill using specific computer programs. Movies, television shows and other group events face not dissimilar problems. Several factors come to mind...
  • Content... First of all, some content seems to be more inherently interesting than other content, hence more motivation. In school, classes covering subjects that we like are generally those into which we put more effort. Effort is generally taken as an index of motivation.

  • Attraction... Secondly, some content is appealing to the senses. They use visual organizers that attract attention to the salient elements; some auditory sounds (or music) are more pleasing to us than other types. Sensory 'prepotence' is another type of motivation.

  • Delivery... Thirdly, some speakers seem to hold an audience attention to their presentation. It may be in the tone of their voices, the slides being used, or the pacing of delivery. It might also involve the timing of breaks. In any case, attention to an effective presentation is motivation
What do all of these points have in common? Attention! Those things that attract and hold our attention seem more interesting, catch our eyes and hold our focus. So what is the nature of attention? What are the effects of our current multimedia environment? How can we become more interesting presenters, graphic designers, photographers, web page/site designers, or artists?

For one thing, we need to understand the nature of attention and how it motivates one to follow a discussion or complete a task. Let's consider a few points. Let's look at what holds our attention and which processes tend to break our attention. For sake of discussion here, let's more or less equate motivation with holding interest; interest is closely linked to attention.

The Nature of the Object... Why do some things seem to have inherent interest and other things don't? Psychologists over the years have found that certain properties of objects seem to have attention-getting built-in — size, color, placement on a page/canvas, tone of voice — all fit this criteria. Most of these have been extensively studied by the Gestalt Psychologists any many of my photographic books roughly equate good composition with many of these elements. Books on good web page design also fit into this schema.

The Activity of the Objects... Why have many web sites included extensive use of animation tools like Flash? Do they make the content easier to use and access? Not necessarily! Then why have we seen a proliferation of animation and video clips on many web sites, especially those related to news agencies (TV and print)? In a word, action seems to have an inherent attention-getting properties. Such animation may take the form of slideshows, advertising banners, and other action-based elements. No doubt much of this has to do with the conditioning current generation have experienced with action TV shows, video games, etc. Action attracts the attention of the viewer, especially those who expect it.

The Timing in the Delivery... We all know that some speakers seem to have our attention more than others. Why are some speakers more effective in holding our attention? I think that the keyword here would be "pacing". The effective speakers know how to vary the tone of their voices, when to change a slide or graphic, when to play a video clip, when to take a break, etc. This pacing holds attention by breaking up a long session into smaller "chuncks". This chuncking is know to produce more effective web pages as well.

So, why don't more people design their presentations or web pages, compose their photographs or other artwork in such a way as to enhance attention? I think that there are probably two factors — lack of preparation and an ignorance of the attention mechanisms in the brain. In the former case, better preparation will produce visuals that are better composed as well as better paced; this leads to more effective presentations and delivery. In the latter case, ignoring the brain's tendency to "habituate", or "turn off" to the material/speech/action that goes on and on. After all, isn't that why movies, plays and books are divided into scenes and chapters?

I have tried to lay out some elements of these attention generating techniques to make my classes and training sessions more motivating. If our audiences doesn't pay attention to what we say, what we write or create or present, they why should we expect them to act any differently? Looking back on the effective speakers, teachers, or professors that I have had, don't we see these principles applied?

Next Week: In the coming weeks I will delve into these topics in more detail, starting with the Gestalt Principles of Visual Organization. Join me in this examination...

Fighting Creativity Blocks... (Part 3)

Last week, I introduced you to the first five ways to motivate oneself from the Commentary in 'LensWork' by Brooks Jensen. In that commentary, he discussed creative blocks that photographers encounter in their work. Much of that related to the tendency to procrastinate and ten ways to break free of this block. Last week, we discussed the first five of these motivations, including:
  • Structure...
  • Commitment...
  • Peer Pressure...
  • Project...
  • Visualize...
Today, I want to go over the last five of these techniques in a little more detail. I am both summarizing what Jensen presents as well as some of my own experiences with these techniques...
  • Deadlines... Having fixed deadlines is always a good motivator. They are set by others — press deadlines from an editor, presentation deadline from a conference and/or an outside organization, or a submission deadline set by a contest. All of these things tend to motivate most people who value achievement. A missed deadline not only makes us look bad, but it may tarnish our professional reputation "...commit to a deadline — the motivation will follow."

  • I can't tell you how many times I have been up to the wee hours of the morning before a presentation duplicating CDs or collating handouts, but my wife can attest to these long hours. In a word — too many...! I have been notorious in concentrating on my PowerPoint presentation and leaving some details for the last moment. When I have set a deadline for all details, I can tell you how much more that I can enjoy the conference and have been relaxes for the actual presentation...

  • Publication... Here Jensen refers not to the final completion of the project, but to interim publication via a web site or PDF preview to be used to prepare your audience for your final exhibit and/or article/book. These interim steps become milestones (project management lingo) on the way to our final goal. They not only motivate by virture of being a set of deadlines, they require us, e.g., motivate us, to reach a defined stage of completion by that date.
  • While in school, these interim targets were often set by our teachers in their course syllabi. As a teacher, I found that this was a necessary feature, especially in online classes. But in the 'real world', we must set these on our own. Here is another way that Peer Pressure can help us: our peers can help remind us of these interim deadlines... A 'Buddy System' can work out well here; I'll help remind you and you help remind me. When accomplished, we have reinforcement that we often need to maintain motivation...

  • Starvation... As Maslow has pointed out, humans, like animals, work with a hierarchy of needs. Survival needs, like eating and shelter, are among the most basic of these needs. They provide a high degree of motivation when we are deprived of them. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), the amateur or hobbiest often is deprived of this strong motivation since their livelihood is not depending on our advocation — the professional is often highly motivated by this factor. We will not all quit our day jobs to dedicate ourselves to writing or painting or photography, but we an set other rewards that can substitute for the motivation.
  • This other motivation can take the form of a specific reward, such as a new camera lens or a set of paints or other gadgets related to our advocation. These incentives will not produce the same level of motivation as starvation, but they can keep us moving towards our goal, just like the hungry rat will traverse the maze for a bit of food. Whatever the energizing source, the motivation Nowcan move us closer to our goals...

  • Mortality... As used by Jensen, this motivation arises from our growing awareness that as we get older, we have less time in which to finish our tasks. This should motivate us to push forward. Rather than putting off a task to tomorrow, whatever we can accomplish today will get us closer to our goal. We do not know exactly how long we have in our life, so there is not time to lose, especially as we get older. Motivation derived from our diminished life expectancy should push us to produce every day...

  • Magazine Submission... Depending on our context, this may be any contractual obligation to write an article, prepare an exhibit, produce a work of art; whatever is included in our contract. The motivation derived from finishing a task serves to prod us on to the next task. Few of us have the luxury (or misfortune) of only achieving one tash in our lifetime. Motivation from the completion of one tash becomes the transition to our defining a new goal and a new task. Successful completion may yield a new commission or contract from the same client. We need to start the planning process anew. But we must know when something is done 'well enough' and not get focused on perfection...
Now is the time to put some of these suggestions to work. As you do so, you probably should keep a diary to monitor your progress, at least initially, along this journey. Success is waiting for you, just start taking the path to this goal one foot at a time...

Next Week: We will start a new series of explorations into the relationship between attention and motivation, with a special emphasis upon how different elements of your photo composition affect your viewer — and their psychological responses to these photos...

Fighting Creativity Blocks... (Part 2)

Last week, I introduced you to the Commentary in 'LensWork' by Brooks Jensen. In that commentary, he discussed creative blocks that photographers encounter in their work. Much of that related to the tendency to procrastinate and ten ways to break free of this block. Today, I want to go over the first five of these techniques in a little more detail.

I am both summarizing what Jensen presents as well as some of my own experiences with these techniques...

  • Structure... Create a project! This project can help you structure a set of tasks that must be accomplished to complete the task. This definition provides the structure that leads to a goal. By starting to complete these tasks will, in turn, lead to the accomplishment of the overall goal. As many writing manuels discuss, it may not be important to complete them in sequential order. Of course, many tasks, such as the processing of a photograph from the camera work to the development process (film) to the print. By working towards the goal in small steps leads to MOTIVATION...

  • Commitment... The planning process described in the previous point is only the start. To accomplish the goal, you must commit yourself, your energy, your resources and your time to that goal. This does not necessarily mean that you drop everything else, but that you budget some of your time and effort each day to the goal. Nothing gets done without such commitment. To facilitate this process, you might think about noting your daily progress in a diary, much like a dieter does with his/her food choices and intake...

  • Peer Pressure... Another way to find motivation is to get help from our peers. Photographers, in Jensen's commentary, can join with other photographers to create a joint venture. The joint effort to this group project will receive support from the other members of the joint effort since everyone must complete their own parts before the overall task can be completed. My wife, Grace, used this technique to help motivate her to do more walking. She formed a Facebook group, the 'Virtual Walking Buddies' (VWBs) to help encourage her to walk our dog, Baby, and help other members start and maintain their walking program. This can be a great, friendly motivator...

  • Projects... Defining a formal project, rather than just casually practicing your skills, can do wonders in building motivation. Last summer I wanted to improve my camera skills. Rather than just saying that I will take photos of something, I decided to photograph trains, including Metrolink, freight and Amtrak trains that run close to where I live. I wanted to improve my composition, exposure precision (shutter speed and aperture settings) and mastery of photographing is different lighting conditions. Therefore, I decided to photograph trains in early morning light (including pre-sunrise), late evening light (including post-sunset) and different weather conditions. I had to get up early, delay dinner, and brave inclimate weather conditions. As a result, I took several thousand images. From those, I selected about 250 good ones and, finally, isolated about three dozen very good photos. This enabled me to take a half a dozen excellent images last fall...

  • Visualization... This technique refers to more than just imagining what you want to photograph! This term is used more like the Gestalt psychologists and means the context that the "more clearly we see a proposed results with our minds eye." We need to keep at a task until we achieve the results that we really want to accomplish. I have a photographic site that has beautiful palm trees with a bluff in the distance. I have photographed this location over several months with different lenses. The wide-angle was OK, the prime 50mm was so-so, and the telephoto was good, but compressed the distances involved. I finally achieved the image that I was seeking when I photographed the scene right after a storm, with turbulent clouds, through the my macro zoom lens! Success at last. And it was through repeating the process until I can up with the right combination of lenses, exposure, and environmental conditions. This can work for you too...

Next Week: Well, enough for this week. I will address the remaining five suggestions next week...

Fighting Creativity Blocks... (Part 1)

I just received by new issue of LensWork Magazine ( This magazine focuses on 'Photography and the Creative Process' and is truely incredible. Brooks Jenkins, the editor, does a great job in bringing this out every other month with some excellent galleries of new and established photographers. In this issue, the 'Editor's Comment' column addresses the creative blocks faced by many creative individuals including: Artists, Writers, and Photographers. These blocks, often discussed under the term 'Writer's Block' are common to all of these groups. I will draw from this editorial for much of the information that was presented, since this magazine is available now only by subscription.

For the creative professional (artist, writer, photographer, etc.), the process of producing their masterpieces (hereafter referred to as works) is anything but a smooth, linear process. It is often accompanied by many starts and stops. The commercial professional, whose livelihood depends upon the production of a finished work, has much inherent motivation to finish it. This is not the case of others who pursue a creative outlet as a hobby, passion, or other activity separate from their 'day job'; this group may include many types of artists, teachers/professors, researchers and others who do not have the built-in motivation of survival as their motivation. Many of the creative works produced today are in this category, especially while they are trying to establish themselves.

So, what is this creative block? Why don't many creative every finish a work? Why are their works often tagged as a 'work in progress'? In a word, it is PROCRASTINATION! Projects, manuscripts, or canvases will often be in this state of partial completion for long periods of time. Why? For the photographer, at least, Jensen points out that the procrastination is "not really the root cause" of the block, but really reflects on a more deep-seated problem — the quest for PERFECTION.

What does this mean? Almost every photographer makes a compromise between producing a work that is good to excellent with whatever resources (assets) are available to him/her. This may be time, money, travel to a location, etc. In their quest for PERFECTION in their work, the dedicated photographer tries to go beyond a reasonable level of work in his/her quest. This is exemplified by the many stories of Ansel Adams printing and re-printing from his negatives for years before he achieved a print that matched the image that he had in his mind when he released the shutter of his camera.

The bottom line seems to be this — "compulsive perfection is procrastination". Why? If the work is left incomplete, it can be improved, thus the state of imperfection is acceptable. Jensen also points out that one must distinguish between a theoretically perfect work from the practically superb work. The latter is obtainable whereas the former is always just out of reach. Jensen goes on to suggest ten ways to help motivate ourselves as creative practitioners to complete a work. These include:
  1. Provide a structure for the work

  2. Make a commitment to the work

  3. Apply peer pressure as part of the work

  4. Define the work as a project

  5. Visualize the work

  6. Define deadlines for the work

  7. Contract for the publication/display of the work

  8. Identify starvation as a consequence of not completing the the work

  9. Face one's own mortality as a threat to the work

  10. Commit to the submission of the work to a publication, exhibit, presentation, etc.

Next Week: Join us as we examine the first five of these items in more detail. See you then...