Illustrating geons

My first year as a cognitive science student presented me with a fascinating, if not overwhelming overview of the inner workings of the mind, but one of the concepts that stood out the most was geons. A geon is a "geometric primitive," or one of several geometric shapes that can comprise any object. Humans then recognize and combine geons to identify objects: once a group of geons is recognized as an object -- say, a sphere and a triangle for an ice cream cone -- it is stored in memory. New input will be matched against stored representations during object recognition. The existence of geons has not been proven (though there is considerable evidence for it), but is part of one of several theories of how people interpret and process visual information. In this particular case, recognition-by-viewpoint theory postulates that visual input maps to representations of imagery, such as geons, in the brainI thought it incredible that our interpretation of complex objects could be reduced to a few geometric primitives –– a circle, a square, a cylinder.

I first learned about geons in a class on perception and visual arts, a tri-weekly adventure in optical illusions, neurons, and perspective in Western art. We were in the midst of discussing various ways to interpret visual information: what if something looks different from each angle? What if it looks the same? How do we contend with an incredible amount of information in our memory? The idea is that geons are part of a relatively extensible process -- we can resolve components into an infinite number of objects, making it easier to learn, categorize, and identify any visual input around us.

This clock can be resolved from a handful of geons.

This clock can be resolved from a handful of geons.

For instance, speaking in terms of geons, this clock is a large circle and two rectangles. When you see the clock, your brain recognizes the geons and then resolves them into the clock. Remarkably, is it thought that there are about 36 geons, each highly distinct. 



I think about geons a lot when I design. If I have a lot of visual information, how does my brain parse and select between it? What kinds of visual cues can I provide to give a better experience?

Flat design is interesting because it abstracts complex objects into lightweight, often symbolic components. If there is no need for intricate visual detail then leave it off. In iOS 8, many icons are small geometric units combined. We're probably seeing geons anyway; why not make the whole world look like them?.

A few weeks ago I decided to draw bicycles in Illustrator. At first I was overwhelmed; bikes are enormous and extremely complex. There is the twisting frame, chains, the seat, lots of metalwork, and even accessories to account for. I thought of reaching for a graphics tablet but eventually, in a moment of clarity, decided it would be simpler and more direct to use geometric shapes. Interestingly enough, breaking the bike into small shapes made me appreciate (and maybe understand) its composite construction more. Bikes have spokes, handlebars, gears... what does each component look like? Even though my bike illustrations were fairly simple, I was forced to think about each part, each shape, and how it related to the others. And as the bikes came together, I wondered whether what was happening on the screen in front of me -- little geometric shapes combining to make a complex object -- paralleled what happened in my brain when I went out in the world and looked at the bicycles around me. If geons show us anything, it's that object recognition, like the process of creating bicycles, is at once enormously complicated and incredibly simple.