Friday, July 20, 2007

Irritating Images

A 'random sample' from a recent Science Magazine, on Art that Jars:
Some images are literally eyesores. Scientists have long known that the wrong mix of shapes and colors can cause discomfort, headaches, or even seizures. Now, they're starting to figure out why.

Psychologist Arnold Wilkins of the University of Essex, U.K., and artist Debbie Ayles--who creates paintings inspired by her migraines (such as the one shown here)--used a Sciart grant from the Wellcome Trust to tease out the keys to annoying art. Focus groups at an exhibition of Ayles's work last year helped identify narrow stripes and juxtaposed complementary colors as inducers of discomfort. Wilkins then compared the subjective ratings of a variety of paintings with each picture's energy intensity, measured by Fourier analysis of stripes' spatial frequency.

At a talk in Cambridge, U.K., last week, Wilkins said the pictures the focus groups found unpleasant featured vertical stripes at the width that we're visually most sensitive to--about 3 stripes per degree of the visual field (a finger held at arm's length corresponds to about 1 degree). The stripe factor applies to type fonts, too--letter length and thickness make Times New Roman a slower read than Verdana, says Wilkins. He says his results can be applied to design, from picking an optimal type size and font for children's books to choosing public murals.

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