Although it is ostensibly my field, I always have trouble trying to explain how to exercise good visual sense in designing technical documents. I’ve been working on some new presentations, and have had pretty good luck this semester using multimedia to fight boredom both in my students and myself. I’m not sure if today’s bit went over well, but I liked it. Some unintended connections surfaced.

I used an old Prelinger film on How the Eye Functions (cut into bite-sized clips) to show how contrast, pointers, headings, etc. can manage attention. The drone of the film helps point out how uniformity and regularity can be both a blessing and a curse. In a more modern vein, I used an article about a varioptic lens for cell phones. I think it shows several complementary typefaces and layout devices working together to direct the viewer in a rich reading experience.

Then it dawned on me. The varioptic lens and the eye are pretty similar technologies, really—much more similar than standard lenses, at least. They share the same primary problem of focusing a “camera” with a fixed distance between lens and “film.” What the eye has that the varioptic lens doesn’t is an iris—I wonder if it would help sharpen or improve the performance? I’m not an engineer, I couldn’t say.

But the most interesting optical technology I’ve read about lately is the plenoptic camera. It allows the focus to be adjusted after a picture has been taken. These are exciting times to follow imaging in general. We may not be able to understand pictorial communication all that well, but improvements in the technology seem to suggest that there have been significant leaps forward.