TEDx, a Map of Brighton and more about Babies and Colour Science.

When I’m looking for some intellectual stimulation or inspiration, I often listen to TED Talks online, delving into subjects like Creativity or Motivation for example. TED was originally set up as a design and technology conference in 1984 but has now grown into an online media giant, freely flowing with talks on science, culture and any academic subject you can think of under the banner of ‘Ideas worth Spreading’. So it was with great honour to find one of my maps has made it to a TEDx talk.  TEDx helps independent organizers to create a TED-like event in their own community in order to ‘spread the ideas’ too. Smaller in scale but in an age of sharing, size doesn’t matter so much anymore.

This particular TEDx talk was held at the ISM University of Management and Economics in Vilnius, Lithuania this October.  The theme was “Question The Expected” and asked the 500 strong audience to be curious about their choices, beliefs and perceptions of the world.

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You may remember my involvement in September with the Baby Lab at the University of Sussex. In connection with that, the talk was given by Doctoral Researcher, Alice Skelton, who works there. Her research is particularly about colour perception in babies and how humans develop the use of language to talk about colour.
One of the largest projects Alice has taken part in is the Categories project, which looks at how infants below 6 months categorise colour. And by categories, I mean grouping colours into ‘red’, ‘blue’, ‘green’, ‘yellow’, ‘brown’ or ‘pink’ etc. There is a huge difference between a rich dark wine red and a bright perky pillar box red but in our culture we still group them together or categorise them, as ‘red’. In the study, babies were tested to see if they could tell the difference between colours without having the words for them, if they were categorising them and how they did it. The results will ultimately tell us how we talk about colour as adults.

It turns out that pre-language babies in the study could naturally distinguish 5 different colour categories. The suggestion is that distinguishing any further subtleties or disregarding some subtleties must come after language is learnt. Different languages divide up the spectrum differently- so some languages only have 5 main categories they group colours in but others use 6 or 7 or 8… English has 11 and Greek and Russian for example both have 12 categories.  The environment you are born into (and therefore what your community labels as important) teaches you names for colours, in which groups they are categorised and the subtleties in colours you are most able to distinguish.

The ability to see in colour is a skill that humans enjoy very much. It’s what allows us to appreciate great art.  But it’s a practical tool in our box too. We can find things at a distance more easily;  distinguish between objects (are you about to eat a carrot or a parsnip?); or highlight important features in a simple way.  And this is where my map popped up as an example on the TEDx presentation screen…

This map of Brighton (from Hand Drawn Maps) is designed as a sensory map. Instead of focussing on physical features in the town, I have mapped the smells you might encounter using simple coloured icons. Brown for the beer smell wafting heavily outside the many bars, pale yellow-green for the lemongrass smell lingering outside the Thai Restaurants and a dirty lilac for the smell hovering over the rubbish bins in the less brightly lit corners. The intensity of the smell is shown by the intensity of the colour. Sometimes the smells combine, shown by the colours lapping over each other.

Without being able to distinguish the subtleties of the colours I’ve used and categorise them, (as a red or a brown, for example), the map would be much harder to understand. Being able to distinguish those subtleties relies on your language and culture. So although it’s a fairly decorative art-map, leaning more on illustrative aesthetics than pinpoint accurate geography, you can only read it easily if you have the right words and your culture has taught you how to.

And that, my friends, is not art but science.

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British Science Festival – Babies and Art.

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.

‘Imposter’. Painting in varnished acrylic mounted on hardboard. Lots of hard clean edges and red paint.

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.

‘Aerialist’ – a painting in acrylic on card. A face, but will it be recognised as one side on….?

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).

Heat map of the peacock illustration.

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.

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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 Library
Jubilee Street,  Brighton BN1 1GE
01273 290800

4th-17th September