A couple years or so ago I set up a little questionnaire online where people had to write down what they saw in response to 16 different symbols. The symbols were of varying degrees of ambiguity made up of simple lines, colours or shapes.
I’d been doing a lot of commercial work at the time and the idea that so many people were seeing my work was making me question the basic ideas of making pictures. Do you see what I see?
I also thought it was interesting to do a little project using the internet. The internet is a beautiful and weird thing and I got answers from throughout Europe, India, America. I wanted to see if there were similarities in what people saw, but also what differences there were. I was intrigued to see how the answers might differ based on location and culture too.
Are there shared understandings in the representation of colours/shapes/symbols? Are they basic ideas learnt from our ancestors and nature and because of strange biological or optical reasons? Or are our shared understandings all learnt from birth and reinforced by all hearing the same stories and seeing the same things and ideas and TV commercials? Or is everyone seeing different things?
About a year after the questionnaire I picked up a great second hand book called ‘The Psychology Of Perception’, which answered a lot of these questions by a real life professor who has studied this stuff all her life. (Looks like you can read it online for free here https://archive.org/details/psychologyofperc00vern)
I don't want to go through the symbols one by one because maybe it’s more fun for you to make up your own conclusions. But here are some general observations I’ve made since:
Having seen = seeing
I didn’t know what a scolopendra was (don’t look it up, it’s gross) but one person saw a scolopendra in symbol no. 12. I couldn’t have seen it because I had never seen one. Now I know what it is, I might see one. Language is based on shared experience.
Most simple symbols relate to something in nature. The sun, the sea, the sky, the moon, even some people mentioned paprika. The square is not commonly found in nature and so is only described directly.
Seeing and understanding
Observation- ‘a circle’, ‘a blue dot’, ‘a scribble’
Observation is about seeing- it is what it is
Representation- ‘a tree’, ‘a star’, ‘the sun’
Representation is about description- it is what I've seen before
Conceptualisation- ‘mind’, ‘tension’, ‘happy’
Concept is about language- it is what I think it means
The person that said ‘Four snakes at the beginning of a race’ for number 13! I laughed out loud. I think this is really really important. Humour and communication go hand in hand and I thought it was so clever and silly and now that’s all I can see.
People are inclined to describe the emotion depicted by faces rather than simply describing a face as a face.
Thankfully there’s only one corporate logo in the answers, and two people even mentioned Pig Pen from Peanuts, which means not all is lost with the world.
I think one important thing to note is that when you take away more and more description until you’re left with something really ambiguous, you’re going to get differing views. I definitely have more questions about this stuff and I think you could split the questionnaire up more, so you could do a set based on colour representation, one based on linear graphic symbols, another based just on shapes. And whether they’re nature or nurture, I think it's a mix of both. Again there are more questions. Obviously everyone recognises the sun because everyone has seen the sun or learnt about their culture’s interpretation of it. But maybe it does go deeper and older than that? I don't know!
One thing is clear- you cannot not communicate- Every colour choice, line, symbol or shape is adding up to something and someone is seeing something in it.