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Be On the Lookout!
by Bob Hambly

Excellent observational skills make us better designers—but like most things, they need practice. One hour into my very first drawing class in my freshman year at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, the instructor asked us to put down our pencils. “You all should know,” he said, “I can’t teach you how to draw.” We all sat stunned. Did we hear that correctly? He then added, “But, I can teach you how to see!”

We had been drawing a stack of wooden drafting tables that were haphazardly piled in the middle of the studio, trying to impress one another with our talent. The instructor informed us that all 24 of us spent more time looking at our own drawings than we did looking at the subject matter. And he was right. “You were drawing what you wanted to see, not what was there.” It was a memorable way to kickoff my four years of art education.

Several weeks later he assigned us with a challenging project—one that involved a block of styrofoam the size of a case of beer. All six sides of the cuboid were marked with a series of connecting lines, both straight and curved. In one week the instructor told us he would cut along all of the lines with a bandsaw to reduce the solid shape into a pile of irregular pieces. It was our task to draw what each of those pieces would look like. The assignment was a true test of our observational skills. Over the course of that first semester, our instructor proved true to his word—he taught us how to see.

I think it’s safe to say that those of us who attended art/design school never had a class called Observation 101. However, during those years, our visualizing skills improved. For most of us, that was probably the single biggest takeaway from our education. When you spend time with people from outside of the design world, you realize that you have developed a different way of looking at things. Not necessarily a better way of looking at things, but a different way.

In 2007, in an attempt to better understand people’s observational skills, Norwegian researchers Stine Vogt and Svein Magnussen developed a study where they recorded the eye movement of two groups, artists and non-artists, as they examined a series of photographs. Here is what they learned: “The artists tended to look at the picture as a whole while the other group tended to only look at the object that was the focus of the image. It comes down to training: artists have learned to identify the real details of a picture, not just the ones that are immediately most salient to the perceptual system, which is naturally disposed to focusing on objects and faces.”

A keen sense of observation is a skill most accomplished designers possess. It plays a significant role in all aspects of the design process—from research through production. However, designers can become complacent and forget that it’s a skill that constantly needs to be honed and practiced. With that in mind, here are five important reasons why we should strive to be better observers:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a course called “The Art of Perception” to New York City police officers and other law enforcement agencies. These unlikely art students analyze paintings from the Met’s collection and are encouraged to comment on anything and everything they observe. Discussions evolve around the painting’s setting, the people, the mood and the details. The more comfortable the police become with expressing their insights, the more they discern from the pieces of art. The NYPD supports this course for it has shown it noticeably improves an individual’s observational skills and, in turn, significantly aids the police in preventing and solving crimes. All of which goes to prove that the more we work at observing, the better we get at it. It heightens our awareness. I tell students to carry a small sketchbook and/or a digital camera with them at all times to record their observations. You can’t be expected to remember everything you see. Although you may not apply your observations right away, you now have a reliable source for future reference.

A heightened awareness keeps us attuned to the world around us. As well as being sensitive to how things look, we should also be aware of how things work. This often leads to the discovery of trends. Take Henry Ford as an example. In 1914 he doubled the daily wage to $5.00 at the Ford Motor Company and shortened the workday from ten hours to eight. At the same time he shortened the workweek to five days, giving workers Saturday and Sunday off. Ford observed that people, if given more leisure time, would have more reason to want to own an automobile. Hambly
Bob Hambly’s curious mind and knack for personal service set the tone at the award-winning Toronto-based ad agency Hambly & Woolley ( Educated at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Hambly frequently speaks on graphic design and design-related topics at universities and associations throughout North America.