Seeing Through Lenses

Raw, unfiltered sense experience is a crushing torrent of stimulus. In the same way that a machine learning algorithm extracts relevant features from its inputs, the human mind seeks patterns in the mess of activity passing through it.

To “make sense” of anything, we are always relying on some Way of Seeing. You can think of it as a “lens” through which the stimulus hitting our senses gets interpreted.

A lens highlights some parts of experience, which inevitably hides others. What gets highlighted constrains which actions feel relevant or possible.

Many people that are drawn to doing design work enjoy looking at the world through a lens of usability and human interaction. A button on a remote control is interpreted from the perspective of how humans might interact with it — what they expect the button to do or how easy it is to press. A public park is perceived in terms of where people might be able to sit or what kinds of activities might occur in the open spaces.

There is a different, although related, lens that is often used by artists. They like to view the world in terms of aesthetics. Rather than concern over convenience or ease of interaction, they perceive in terms of beauty and emotional impact.

Combining these two can be difficult. You have to synthesize different perspectives — use different lenses. The results can be impressive when done well.

And yet, there is no “one true lens” to rule them all.

There is no optimal or correct way to interpret the world. It depends on what you care about or want to accomplish. The relevance of a lens is a function of the context within which it is used. Any lens comes with its own benefits and drawbacks.

The iPhone is a good example of a synthesis of several lenses, but there are inevitable trade-offs. Usability must be sacrificed for aesthetic appeal, and vice versa. Which is more important, which is correct? There is no objective truth here.

Most people can access many lenses but inevitably find some more rewarding, or easier to use, than others. The lenses they practice more end up being their strong suits and become even more relied upon. It can be easy to forget how different lenses impact people.

The different ways of seeing of a Democrat and a Republican can sometimes make communication all but impossible.

When someone’s views seem incomprehensible, consider that they may be using a different lens than you. What might yours be missing that theirs can see?


Originally published at Gary Basin’s words.

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