📚UX Book Review – John Berger “Ways of Seeing”📚

Illustration by the author


“Every image embodies a way of seeing. Even a photograph. For photographs are not, as is often assumed, a mechanical record. Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights.”

John Berger

This is the first in a series of book reviews where I will explore books and their impact on UX and UI design.

To start, let’s take a look at John Berger’s seminal work, Ways of Seeing. While this book may not seem immediately connected to UX, the fundamental theories that Berger put forward are indeed relevant to the basic principles of UX.

In Ways of Seeing, Berger argues that our ways of seeing are shaped by our culture and social conditioning. This has a profound impact on how we interpret images or visual elements, both in art and in everyday life.

A brief overview of the book

“You are always looking for an explanation, a logical understanding of what you see. Our look, or an image, is unstable. When you look at it, it’s not just your eye that’s involved. It’s your mind. That’s all we have for looking, your mind. And what you think affects what you see.”

John Berger

Ways of Seeing by John Berger was published in 1972 and was also developed as a television series (you can find it on YouTube).

At its heart, Berger’s work examines how we view art and images. The book is divided into seven essays, four of which use images to illustrate Berger’s points. The first essay introduces some of the key ideas of the book, such as the difference between looking and seeing, and the way that images can be used to create and reinforce social norms.

Other essays in the book explore topics such as the male gaze in Western art, the representation of women in advertising, and the impact of the camera on our ways of seeing. Berger argues that these images often reflect and perpetuate harmful stereotypes and power imbalances.

Throughout the work, Berger encourages us to be more critical consumers of visual culture, which in turn can extend to the realm of UX and UI design.

Key takeaways and influence on UX

“We never look just at one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.”

John Berger

According to Berger, the subjective nature of seeing and the importance of understanding the context in which images are created are not to be underestimated. Berger does so by reminding us that the way users see and perceive our products is shaped by their thoughts, beliefs, and experiences. We must recognise that users come from diverse backgrounds and possess different perspectives, which can influence their interpretations and interactions with a product or website.

As UX and UI designers, we need to deeply consider how users see, perceive, and understand our products. This can include the development of user personas, understanding of mental models and affordances, and looking at the broader context of an applications usage. It means reminding ourselves that are users are people, just like us.

“Later still the specific vision of the image-maker was also recognized as part of the record. An image became a record of how X had seen Y.”

John Berger

He also argues how powerful the creator is. While his focus is on marketing and advertising, it can be extended to other areas of design. He talks about the power of imagery, and how it is used in advertising as a means of social power, convincing and manipulating the viewer into desiring the product.

Our designs are based on our perception of the world also, and our understanding of the problem. We create from our views and experiences, and can therefore proliferate an unconscious bias with our imagery and designs. Designers must carefully consider the visual cues, imagery, and aesthetics we employ, as these elements can convey meaning and elicit emotional responses that greatly impact the user’s experience.

Here is a summary of how Berger’s theories can be used in relation to UX design:

  • Cultural Sensitivity: Incorporate an understanding of the user’s cultural background and context into the design to ensure it resonates with a diverse audience.
  • Multiple Perspectives: Recognise that users approach a digital product with different perspectives, just as Berger highlighted the multiple ways of seeing art. Ensure that the interface accommodates these varied viewpoints.
  • Visual Communication: Emphasise the power of visual elements to convey complex ideas and emotions, ensuring that the design is clear, engaging, and emotionally resonant.
  • Deconstruction: Apply deconstructive thinking as advocated by Berger to analyse user interfaces critically, identifying elements that might contribute to miscommunication or confusion, and refine them accordingly.
  • Semiotics: Incorporate semiotics and symbolism in the design to leverage visual cues that users can readily understand, creating intuitive interactions and navigation.
  • Contextual Understanding: Consider the contextual factors that influence how users perceive and interact with the digital product, just as Berger explored how context impacts the interpretation of art.
  • Empathy: Encourage empathy in UX designers, fostering an ability to put themselves in the user’s shoes and appreciate how their background and experiences affect their interactions with the interface.
  • Critique and Feedback: Promote a culture of critique and feedback within UX design teams, akin to Berger’s analysis of art, to continuously improve the design based on diverse perspectives and insights.

According to Berger “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” We should not underestimate the power of seeing. What we create visually can have the power to transform the viewing. As designers, therefore, we need to remind ourselves of this power, create work that users see, rather than just look at, and in turn, produce a more inclusive and user-friendly experiences.

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