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...

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