I was recently asked by the University of Sussex to take part in some research by the Sussex Baby Lab there. The Baby Lab does research in what babies can see. This project, as part of the British Science Festival (5th-9th September 2017 in Brighton) involved tracking babies’ eye movements while they looked at a 13 different artworks from illustration to fine art – some of which were mine. For each baby, the average amount of time looking at the image and the average number of eye fixations were measured. As they are unable to articulate their preferences, heat tracks were made of their eye movements and from this, it was possible to see which work was most attractive or stimulating to them.
I was worried that none of the work I presented had been made specifically for babies. I was told it didn’t matter. It was just important that each piece could be used to test the differences between adult eyes and those of babies. I chose an illustration from a book for much older readers and two fine art works, not made with children in mind at all.
In general, it’s known that babies see the world slightly differently to adults. Babies’ colour vision isn’t developed in the first year. Red and green differences can be picked up in the first 2 months, blue and yellow after 4 months. They need saturated intense colour to discriminate between colours – the more distinct and contrasted, the better. Apparently babies do prefer some colours over others, for example blues, reds and purples rather than dark yellows, greens and browns.
Babies between 1-4 months are able to see the difference between some shapes (eg: a cross and a circle) and after 5 months have been shown to prefer curved shapes to angular ones and straight lines. Babies over 12 months prefer to look at vertically symmetrical patterns over patterns with horizontal symmetry or asymmetrical patterns. Babies of all ages also love looking at faces or things that look like faces.
They aren’t able to see fine details and lots of small patterns blur into a single mass. In the first few months of life, controlling eye movements is tough and they can get ‘stuck’ fixating on one thing, although this improves with time and practice. I expected that my last illustration would fall into this category and not be particularly successful in holding the babies’ attention.
However, it actually did pretty well. The heatmap below shows how babies were fascinated with the eyes in the peacock’s tail (8.9 fixations on average). The average looking time was 4.14 seconds from a maximum of 5 seconds (4th out of the 13 works tested in this area).
One of the most successful images was this digital artwork from my good friends at Cornish collective, Granite and Glitter. This frog print was top in achieving babies’ eye fixations – approximately 11 times per baby. It’s a complex image with multiple colours and the heat map below shows how the babies look at the bold patterns on the frog’s back and then move to the right as they look at the repeat patterns.
The artwork that was used in the research will become an exhibition , ‘Seeing the World through a Baby’s Eyes’ at the Jubilee Library in Brighton from 4th-17th September 2017 to showcase the features that babies like to look at. Research scientists will be on hand on the 7th September to explain the results and techniques used to visitors.
It should be a really fascinating show; I’ve learnt so much already from being involved and I’d like to head over to check out the other artwork and talk to some scientists. If I ever illustrate a book for babies, hopefully I’ll be able to use some of the research in how I design each picture…
Jubilee Street, Brighton BN1 1GE