Jessica Helfand

One Person, One Vote, One MRI?

In our little New England village, voting takes place at the local Town Hall, a small building on Main Street with two entrances that lead to one large room containing a single voting booth. In the last primary, local officials placed banners over each of the entrances—one marked democrats, the other, republicans—an oddly prurient gesture in a town where anonymity is virtually unheard of. Then again, our local paper annually publishes the names of the 10 biggest taxpayers, alongside the hefty tax liability of each, so why was I surprised?

An article in today's New York Times raises the question of partisan leanings to a new and considerably worrisome level. By alleging to "put the science back into political science" neuroscientists at UCLA are using magnetic resonance imaging (aka MRIs) to understand the brain's response to political images. The idea of "reading" reactions to visual stimuli as a litmus test for determining political choices is at once fascinating and horrifying. It seems to present all sorts of ethical, moral and even legal questions: where, for instance, does privacy begin? Where does freedom of speech begin? And if technology can be called upon to harnass both the power of the visual and the vicissitudes of the psyche, then where does this leave design, and perhaps more importantly, the designer?

I am reminded of the research conducted by Mario Garcia and Pegie Stark of the Poynter Institute, which involved real people wearing oversized headgear connected to wires that ultimately determined that there was, in fact, an order to the way people look at news. Early findings suggested that pictures spoke louder than words (and big surprise, large type pulled readers in faster than small type) though recent research done in collaboration with Stanford University suggests that text trumps graphics as the preferred mode of entry.

In either instance, technology is being celebrated for its ability to detect what people think as a consequence of what they see. What's thrilling is the idea that visual matter is so intrinsically connected to social behavior. What's chilling is the notion of the lie-detector test writ large: if the designer clasically employed empirical research to determine the characteristics of a target audience, then what happens when brain scans do this for us? Surveillant technologies do this all the time — online traffic patterns are detected by the sequence of clicking through a website, for instance — but the Poynter and UCLA research differ in that they pierce the veil separating the body and the machine. Will any of this change the way we think, practice, theorize, experiment, probe, analyze, examine, produce, reconsider, collaborate, delight, engineer and/or surprise our audience(s) along the way? To the degree that both experiments isolate visual imagery as pivotal cues in behavior, the presence of these protocols in our work may come sooner than we imagine.

Voting may be more a science than an art, though at the end of the day, I suspect it is a function of both — and depending on who's voting (and maybe more importantly, who's running) it's not clear how the percentages skew. To a similar degree, graphic design involves some combination of determinism and divination. As for the former, we know bigger type is easier to read. And the latter? We may not want mystery where our Presidents are concerned, but in the world of visual phenomena, I'm not so sure.

Posted in: Information Design, Politics + Policy, Science , Theory + Criticism

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Comments [3]
Take a cursory look at how technology's role in civilization has evolved through history. Excluding the last fifty or so years, it has always been about solving very specific problems. The development of new technology was always a matter of invention - of creative solutions. I see a very concrete analog between this and a more traditional design approach.

However, over the last fifty years - with the introduction of complex digital and electronic systems - the process by which we arrive at what are deemed as advances in technology has faced a fundamental shift in its nature. In my opinion, progress has become a question of optimization and efficiency. Contemporary enginnerring is concerened primarily with speed. Broadband and fast processors are the order of the day.

In terms of how receptive the public is to political and commercial media - I feel that the public's process of consumption is similarly becoming far more interested in the "point of sale" as supposed to the end product. People are far more interested in how the news is delivered to them than the actual news.

The collective awareness of this evolution is also having profound effects on how we approach knowledge. Knowledge is less and less being measured in terms of how much is known, and more so being measured in terms of how quickly we can access what is known (internet).

In this sense, the fact that "technology is being celebrated for its ability to detect what people think as a consequence of what they see" should come as no suprise. Will brain scans, as tools for empirical research, make a designer's solution more efficient? In some sense yes. I think it will be a more efficient solution, at the expense of a more creative and inventive one.

From an article on

[Replicating the Pepsi challenge with challengees strapped to a MRI]

"When [the researcher] gave a taste of an unnamed soda to his volunteers he found that more people preferred Pepsi. On the scan images the ventral putamen, one of the brain's reward centers, had a response that was five times stronger than for people who preferred Coke.

The shock came when [he] repeated the experiment, this time telling volunteers which brand they were tasting. Nearly all the subjects then said they preferred the Coke."

Ah, the joy of MRI's. (Allusion to Pepsi's old slogan fully intended, even if lamely).

New technology - or new use of old technology - is just another tool in the designer's belt. If MRIs can be used to help design better understand its audience(s), then power to science and the designer. As much as the designer may not want to yield control to something other than her own expertise and discretion, the development of all kinds of tools - including research methods, semiotics, theory, faster computers - can enable the designer to create more effective communication, better reach her audience, and - if embracing viable methodologies - become a better designer. In the end, perhaps the designer will find herself less concerned with issues of credibility and justification, instead in a situation to worry about something that really matters: doing the best work she can for its purpose.

Armin, in response to your comment (and an opportunity to completely contradict everything i've just written): ultimately, i wonder if it's more important that someone truly prefer something, or truly believe they prefer something. Does UCLA's research account for this? And what difference does it make if the end result is satisfaction?
Andrew Twigg

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