100 Things You Should Know about People: #4 — You Imagine Objects From Above and Tilted (The "Canonical Perspective")

Why you should believe the research in this blog post even though it’s from 1981 — Whenever I talk about “old” research some people start right away to dismiss it. It’s easy to think that research done in the 1990s or 1980s, or heavens! the 1970s! couldn’t hold any interest for us now. I heartily disagree. If the research is sound and it’s about people, then the chances are high that it still has relevance. Certainly if you are talking about research from the 1980s showing that it is hard to read text on a computer screen, then more recent data is important —  the quality of computer monitors has changed so dramatically from the 1980s till now (believe me on this one, as I was around to see the screens of the 1980s. I am aware that many of you reading this blog have only seen a screen from the 80s in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, or maybe you saw it in an old black and white movie (joke), or, as my daughter likes to say to me, “that must have been when you were younger and the dinosaurs roamed).

Have an Open Mind — So the purpose of the above long preamble to ask you to have an open mind about the following research that was done and written up in a book from 1981.

Draw a Coffee Cup — If you ask someone to draw a picture of a coffee cup, chances are they will draw something that looks like this:

Everyone Drew A Similar Picture — In fact, a researcher named Palmer went all around the world and asked people to draw a coffee cup and the pictures above were what people drew. Notice the perspective of the cups. A few of them are “straight on”, but most are drawn from a perspective as if you are slightly above the cup looking down, and offset a little to the right or left. This has been dubbed the “canonical perspective”.

Why Not This? — No one he studied drew this:

which is what you would see if you were looking at a coffee cup from way above and looking down. Of course not, you say, but…. why not? And if you are going to say that the first perspective is the one that we actually see most of the time, when we look at a coffee cup… that it is the angle we are used to seeing the cup on our kitchen tables, I will tell you that this research has been done on many objects. For example, people were shown pictures of horses from various angles and perspectives and they most quickly recognized it as a horse when it was from this same canonical perspective. Yet I am fairly sure that most of us have not looked at horses from above most of the time. And the research was done with people recognizing a very small dog or cat. The canonical perspective still won out, even though when we see cats or very small dogs we are mainly looking at them from high above, not just slightly above. In fact the research shows that when we imagine an object we imagine it from this canonical perspective.
So, Why Care? — It seems to be a universal trait that we think about, remember, imagine and recognize objects from this canonical perspective. Why care? Well, if you want to use icons at your web site or in your web or software application that people will recognize, then you might want to use this perspective. This is probably not so critical if you are using a well known logo, for example, the logo for itunes or Firefox, but becomes important if the icon is not as familiar, such as recognizing below that one of the logos is of a truck, or a photo printer.

What Do You Think? — Should we continue to use the canonical perspective?
And for those of you who like to read research:
Palmer, S. E., Rosch, E., and Chase, P. (1981). “Canonical Perspective and the Perception of Objects.” In Long, J., and Baddeley, A.  (Eds.), Attention and performance IX, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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16 comments on “100 Things You Should Know about People: #4 — You Imagine Objects From Above and Tilted (The "Canonical Perspective")
  1. El Gitano says:

    Hello, Susan! Another interesting post! First, about your preamble… I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering and I can assure to you that the laws of Isaac Newton (XVII century) are still valid for most of the stuff I studied. So… I couldn't agree with you more.
    About the canonical perspective… shouldn't we say… most recognizable perspective? Or the one that gives us most of the details without being ambiguous? For example… the coffee cup seen from above can easily be confused with a hat (the handle of the coffee cup is the strap on the hat). So… maybe our brain stores the canonical (recognizable) perspective of the objects, which is used for an immediate representation of that object. However, drawing perspective isn't easy and requires some visual education. For example… children have some difficulty with perspective. Resuming: when we draw an icon, we must use the less ambiguous representation of what we want.

  2. Susan Weinschenk says:

    Great insights! And I never did learn how to draw with perspective.

  3. Its a great view about the people and no doubt that you write such a useful post on a great point!
    These 100 things are very nice and thinkable that we should know!

    Susan thanks a lot for sharing such useful post!
    have a nice day cheers!

  4. Hi Susan,
    As a representational artist and instructor I find this post very interesting. I often have to train my students to see with their eyes and not with their brain. I look forward to more from you.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. jrosell says:

    I think logos can use diferent perspectives so as to be distinct & original.

  6. Nathan says:

    I remember Green Screens, and the first CGA monitors. I doubt I could draw one though.

  7. joh says:

    hello susan,

    i (german interaction designer) startet to read your blog. very interesting and helpful. But on this one here i whould not totally agree without leaving questions :-)
    Is the answer really that this canonical perspetive has all the properties to make an object easy recognizable to the brain.
    I would assume that the cup was drawn the way it is seen most of the times. When you sit on a table you look at the cup not from above. “From above” appears when you drink out of it.
    When drinking, its hard to see the cup …
    So, how do people draw e.g. a house, a mountain or a tower? These are objects normaly seen from below…

  8. Darragh says:

    You’ve come to a false assumption based on this research that designing in this perspective will lead to better recognition. This research does conclusively prove this. At best it suggests the possibility.

    If you consider the frequency of occurrences of these different observed perspectives, it makes sense why this canonical perspective is the most commonly drawn. When was the last time you viewed a perfect elevation of a coffee cup, where the third dimension was hidden? When was the last time you viewed a coffee cup from a perfect plan view where all that was visible was the rim and handle? There is always some degree of third dimension.

    We think about, remember, imagine and recognize objects from this “canonical perspective” because variations of this perspective are the overwhelming majority perceived in the natural world.

    This suggests to me, not that this is how we best perceive objects, but that when instructed to recall objects, we opt for the most commonly perceived version.

    This may otherwise suggest that we are simply optimized communicators, that we recognize that the canonical perspective communicates the maximum information, lessening the probability of being mistaken for a different object.

  9. Darragh says:

    wups EDIT: this research does *not* conclusively prove this

  10. Susan Weinschenk says:

    For those of you who are arguing that we remember or imagine things from a canonical perspective because that’s what we see most of the time, I disagree. In the article above I write:
    ‘if you are going to say that the first perspective is the one that we actually see most of the time, when we look at a coffee cup… that it is the angle we are used to seeing the cup on our kitchen tables, I will tell you that this research has been done on many objects. For example, people were shown pictures of horses from various angles and perspectives and they most quickly recognized it as a horse when it was from this same canonical perspective. Yet I am fairly sure that most of us have not looked at horses from above most of the time. And the research was done with people recognizing a very small dog or cat. The canonical perspective still won out, even though when we see cats or very small dogs we are mainly looking at them from high above, not just slightly above. In fact the research shows that when we imagine an object we imagine it from this canonical perspective.”

    My main point anyway is that if this is such a common perspective that people tend to recognize and imagine then we should probably use it on our webpages and other places where we show images and icons.

  11. (untested, hypothesized) Exceptions:
    tree
    bird
    person (full body, or face)
    mountain
    fence
    book

  12. Ken says:

    How does media affect our perception of objects? Though I don’t see horses from the “canonical perspective”, in film there is a tendency for me to see horses from that angle, particularly in battles, etc.

  13. Ben says:

    For the cats and small animals argument, I’m pretty sure most of the time I’m looking at animals from a distance, not when they’re at my feet. Same with and animal like a horse.
    Also, in support of the arguments that have already been made about people imagining the point of view they most commonly see, notice in all the pictures, the tea cup handle is to the right… The side we most commonly see when we’re drinking ;)

  14. Taniya says:

    we see most of the things in cannical perspective bcz its normal human eye level and i agree with ben and el gitano’s ans . we cant see evry thing from birds eye view elae we have to fly in helicopters and see every thing:P……..rest your article and the your thinking approch towards such a thing is really good .:) keep it up

  15. Tom says:

    What I find almost more interesting than the idea of canonical perspective is that everyone who was asked to draw a coffee cup drew what is really a tea cup and saucer, whereas the coffee mug or paper go-cup is much more commonly used for coffee.

  16. Susan Weinschenk says:

    Tom — You make an interesting point. Two things to keep in mind though… I believe they were asked to draw a coffee cup, not a “mug”, so that might have influenced them, and also, the drawings are from around the world. In the US a coffee mug is prevalent, but in many other places around the world coffee is served in cups and saucers. In some places paper to-go cup are rare. Perhaps these were a factor.

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  1. […] 100 Things You Should Know about People: #4 — You Imagine Objects From Above and Tilted (The “Ca… It seems to be a universal trait that we think about, remember, imagine and recognize objects from this canonical perspective. Why care? Well, if you want to use icons at your web site or in your web or software application that people will recognize, then you might want to use this perspective. (tags: design psychology perspective) […]

  2. […] Gestalt Theory – http://bit.ly/tR1VOD James J. Gibson- http://bit.ly/tsuUEX Canonical Perspective- http://bit.ly/1oO7ua Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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