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Visual Intelligence – Sharpening your senses

Visual Intelligence – Sharpening your...

“Visual Intelligence” is one of the 52 books I’ll read this year. And after reading the first chapter, I kinda felt like I just discovered a book that would tell me how to become more like Sherlock Holmes, and it didn’t disappoint.

Visual Intelligence is a book about sharpening your senses and not missing any details, in anything. Especially as a designer, this can be super helpful. Pixel perfect design and no more missed details when sending the final design to the client.

Sharpening your senses

The main takeaway from this book is that you should practice your observation skills by looking at art, for quite a while if you have the chance. The author actually took the New York Police Department to an art gallery in order to increase their observation skills, so don’t worry, it’s a proven method.

Observing art

The app Google Arts and Culture is a great source of art if you wanna start straight away. The basic idea is that you look at any piece of art for about 1 minute. After that, you look away and describe what you saw. Of course, you missed a lot of things (trust me, you will), so you look back at the artwork, but this time for about 2 minutes. Again you look away and name the things you saw. Again I’m pretty sure you missed some details, so look again for 5 minutes or more, and try to see every little detail.

The more you do this, the more details you will see and the more details you will remember. To get the most out of this exercise the author gives you some questions to ask yourself while observing.

Asking the right questions and tips for observing like Sherlock Holmes.

Be precise

When describing to yourself what you are seeing, be as precise as you can. Don’t describe a ring as “a ring”, but “a golden ring that is less than 0,5cm wide and is worn on the left hand on the second finger from the left.”

The 5 W’s

During these iterations of observing it’s important to ask yourself these questions.

  1. What is happening?
  2. Who is involved?
  3. Where is it happening?
  4. When is it happening?
  5. Why is it happening?

The author used the painting called Automat, from Edward Hopper (1927) as an example (see image below this paragraph). In the painting, we see a woman having a drink. What would she be drinking? The only drinks served in a stone mug in 1927 are coffee, hot chocolate or tea. Tea would usually come with a tea bag and a spoon, which we don’t see. Hot chocolate would leave a brown edge at the inside of the mug, where the mug touches the mouth, something we don’t see as well. So coffee would be a good ques. She probably ate something as well, because there is a saucer in front of her, the saucer for her cup is under her mug. The is also missing a glove on her right hand, which is odd because it’s not shown in the painting.

(credit’s for the analysis go to Amy Herman)

The author continues to describe the what, who, where, when and why. It’s very interesting to read, so here’s a link to the book on Amazon.

automat Edward Hopper
Leave out assumptions and biases

Based on your beliefs, whether they’re political or whatever, you look at things differently. When you’re no longer seeing new things in a piece of art, you might ask yourself whether your description is partly based on your personality, instead of it being completely objective.


The main takeaway from the book is that observing art is super useful and can increase your observation skills a lot. It’s something that can be done anywhere, and going to a museum might be a little more fun now.


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