apophenia: it’s what we do

Photo: Damon Easley

Most designers prefer visual to verbal communication and often do a poor job of explaining the profession to outsiders, some of whom may have an inkling that problem-solving is involved, but most of whom cling limpet-like to the idea that design is about ‘making things look nice’. If only there were a handy phrase to describe what really goes on… I have just discovered (thank you BBC Radio 4) that there is a name for what is probably the key design aptitude.

In 1958 neurologist and psychiatrist Klaus Conrad coined apophenia to describe “the unmotivated seeing of connections” with a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”. Finding connections and meanings in experience – is that not the most interesting/valuable part of what designers do?

Apophenia includes the more apparent and specific psychological phenomenon pareidolia, where vague and random stimuli (mostly image/sound) are perceived as significant. Seeing faces in clouds is probably the most familiar occurrence and the Rorschach inkblot test uses this to gain insight into a person’s mental state. It also accounts for religious ‘miracles’ such as the regular appearance of Jesus or The Virgin Mary in tortillas and grilled cheese sandwiches (and is of course the basis of Father Ted’s ruse to lure Bishop Brennan to Craggy Island in pursuit of an arse-kicking obligation).

All human beings are hard-wired with this survival mechanism. It helps us to recognise faces and possible threats in poor visibility and is often more apparent when we are tired/sick (one of the few consolations of a childhood fever is watching bedspread textiles and wallpaper patterns become entertaining parades of faces, animals etc.). Apophenia is at the heart of the powerful human desire for ‘meaning’ that drives us to interpret the world around us – usefully or otherwise. Creative thinkers including writers, musicians, designers, artists and scientists cultivate this facility, seeking hidden patterns and structures in information, making connections with the seemingly unrelated. In communications design making meaningful structure and connections apparent helps audiences absorb and recall information. It is an essential component of creative insight.

Apophenia – not exactly a catchy term, but I’m determined to remember it for next time someone asks “…but what do you really do…?”

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