Friday, October 30, 2009

100 Things You Should Know about People: #4 -- The Canonical Perspective

Warning: A Kind of Long Preamble -- Whenever I talk about "old" research some people start right away to dismiss it. It's easy to think that research done in the 1990s or 1980s, or heavens! the 1970s! couldn't hold any interest for us now. I heartily disagree. If the research is sound and it's about people, then the chances are high that it still has relevance. Certainly if you are talking about research from the 1980s showing that it is hard to read text on a computer screen, then more recent data is important --  the quality of computer monitors has changed so dramatically from the 1980s till now (believe me on this one, as I was around to see the screens of the 1980s. I am aware that many of you reading this blog have only seen a screen from the 80s in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, or maybe you saw it in an old black and white movie (joke), or, as my daughter likes to say to me, "that must have been when you were younger and the dinosaurs roamed).

Have an Open Mind -- So the purpose of the above long preamble to ask you to have an open mind about the following research that was done and written up in a book from 1981.

Draw a Coffee Cup -- If you ask someone to draw a picture of a coffee cup, chances are they will draw something that looks like this:




Everyone Drew A Similar Picture -- In fact, a researcher named Palmer went all around the world and asked people to draw a coffee cup and the pictures above were what people drew. Notice the perspective of the cups. A few of them are "straight on", but most are drawn from a perspective as if you are slightly above the cup looking down, and offset a little to the right or left. This has been dubbed the "canonical perspective".

Why Not This? -- No one he studied drew this:



which is what you would see if you were looking at a coffee cup from way above and looking down. Of course not, you say, but.... why not? And if you are going to say that the first perspective is the one that we actually see most of the time, when we look at a coffee cup... that it is the angle we are used to seeing the cup on our kitchen tables, I will tell you that this research has been done on many objects. For example, people were shown pictures of horses from various angles and perspectives and they most quickly recognized it as a horse when it was from this same canonical perspective. Yet I am fairly sure that most of us have not looked at horses from above most of the time. And the research was done with people recognizing a very small dog or cat. The canonical perspective still won out, even though when we see cats or very small dogs we are mainly looking at them from high above, not just slightly above. In fact the research shows that when we imagine an object we imagine it from this canonical perspective.

So, Why Care? -- It seems to be a universal trait that we think about, remember, imagine and recognize objects from this canonical perspective. Why care? Well, if you want to use icons at your web site or in your web or software application that people will recognize, then you might want to use this perspective. This is probably not so critical if you are using a well known logo, for example, the logo for itunes or Firefox, but becomes important if the icon is not as familiar, such as recognizing below that one of the logos is of a truck, or a photo printer.




What Do You Think? -- Should we continue to use the canonical perspective?

And for those of you who like to read research:

Palmer, S. E., Rosch, E., and Chase, P. (1981). “Canonical Perspective and the Perception of Objects.” In Long, J., and Baddeley, A.  (Eds.), Attention and performance IX, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.



2 comments:

El Gitano said...

Hello, Susan! Another interesting post! First, about your preamble... I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering and I can assure to you that the laws of Isaac Newton (XVII century) are still valid for most of the stuff I studied. So... I couldn't agree with you more.
About the canonical perspective... shouldn't we say... most recognizable perspective? Or the one that gives us most of the details without being ambiguous? For example... the coffee cup seen from above can easily be confused with a hat (the handle of the coffee cup is the strap on the hat). So... maybe our brain stores the canonical (recognizable) perspective of the objects, which is used for an immediate representation of that object. However, drawing perspective isn't easy and requires some visual education. For example... children have some difficulty with perspective. Resuming: when we draw an icon, we must use the less ambiguous representation of what we want.

Susan Weinschenk said...

Great insights! And I never did learn how to draw with perspective.