Repost: Design, photography and visual priorities

17.03 front rough 6 full res copy

Today’s repost is specifically intended to cue up your design sensibilities in advance of the next two photoessays, and put into context why I find these things so darn fascinating.

Some of you probably know that beyond photography, I’m involved in design work on two fronts – as lead designer at Horologer MING, my watch brand, and as a consultant at Hasselblad. There is a popular misconception that design is mainly about a few things: style, function/ usability/ UI/ ergonomics, and differentiation. In reality, design is really about making a set of coherent choices in an environment where there are choices to be made I’d argue that beyond and above this, there’s really only one overarching principle that should be the basis of all good design: I think of it as one of composition.

Just as the way we ‘read’ an image is determined by somewhat immutable physiological underpinnings (rules of vision, part I and part II) that are common across all human observers with normal vision – the important thing here is these same rules apply to anything we look at. A photograph, painting or other graphic presentation is merely a two dimensional representation of reality; to our visual cortex all stimuli must pass through the same neural pathways and the same ‘processing algorithms’ before being interpreted. Put simply: there is a reason warning signs are bright red and highly contrasting. We notice brightness/ luminance contrast and color/color contrast in that order; anything that breaks pattern signals to us to take notice (undoubtedly as a holdover from the days when it made the difference between being eaten and doing the eating). Yet you’d be surprised just how many designs completely ignore this at the priority of other things that don’t matter – affecting both functionality and overall coherence.

In something like a watch, this is especially important: there are so many designs that are arresting as a whole, but are completely impossible to read. (No doubt their owners resort to their mobile phones to read the time.) We simply didn’t see this kind of thing when a watch was a tool, with a single purpose: to tell the time. The morphing of a watch into a social beacon has shifted priorities from one function (timekeeping) to another (attracting envy). To that end – such designs are inherently successful if they are noticed regardless of functionality or longevity, because anything else they might do is simply a bonus. It’s not difficult to make a set of compositional choices that might be different, but jarringly so – that still represents breaking pattern and thus noticeability – but something else entirely to do it in a way that’s still attractive, harmonious and has some hope of longevity. More so in a class of product that has fairly well established norms and conventions; there is a reason why we do not see watches with 10 hour and 3 minute divisions. There is no reason it couldn’t be done, but what would be the point?

_8510269-1 copy

Our 17.03 (shown in 2D render and actual photograph) was designed according to these principles. I cannot help but look at the whole watch as a composition when I design: the dial is the subject, with the main timekeeping hands taking priority; thus they must be the boldest and most easily recognised element on the face. Next comes the indices that enable you to read the time – these should be regular and easy to take in at a glance in order that the relative position of the hands can be discerned; we cannot easily count more than three or four divisions at a glance, so having a distinctive quadrant divider (numerals in this case) serves the function of keeping the indices bold but easily differentiable. Coming next is the second timezone marker and its set of indices; this must also be easily legible (i.e. high contrast) but not more prominent than the main timekeeping hands and indices – therefore necessitating them to be smaller). Thus the first thing you notice is the position of the hands, for approximate time telling at a glance; then the indices, for more precise reading, and finally, the alternative timezone. The rest of the dial background serves as visual texture for the presentation, in a similar way to how the background elements sets the context for the subject in a photograph. The watch case is a reinforcing frame and should serve to support the overall personality of the piece, and have some distinguishing details, but ideally not dominate – in the same way as one chooses the frame for a photograph carefully to isolate, but not overpower.

Notice I do not have a second hand, sub second divisions or even individual minute markings – this is a consequence of a second important principle of design. Most people understand it as minimalism, but that’s a bit misleading because it tends to be taken to extremes. I prefer to think of it as prioritisation or reductionism: getting rid of the bits you don’t need, so that the important stuff has higher visual priority. In the case of the watch, if such accurate time telling is necessary, then you probably want to have something with an instantaneous and discreet unit digital display; analog displays are slightly imprecise by nature. A five minute division is good enough to approximate to the nearest minute; the second hand is not so useful unless you need a running indication (and again, you can simply listen to it tick if necessary).

The compositional analog is of course conscious exclusion: frame such that anything that might possibly be distracting or confusing to the narrative is simply not in the frame. Given how much of the interpretation of a photograph is both influenced by social context and personal biases, it’s important to remove any possibly ambiguity such that the photographer’s intended message doesn’t get lost in translation. At the same time, there are non-primary cues that can be used to change the mood (for a photograph) or feel (for a watch, or other object) – shifting from a black to dark maroon dial, for instance, makes it a less serious piece; a different strap could go from dressy to casual – much like a 500K white balance shift in either direction can make the difference between welcoming and warm or cool and standoffish.

At this point you might be wondering why I’m conspicuously silent on the concept of wimmelbild; on the face of it, it would seem to be the antithesis of reductionism. That’s true if it’s simply chaotic; however the intention of wimmelbild (in my mind) has always been to create recursive layering to an image that gives it visual density and texture, plus continues to reward prolonged inspection. The underlying structure of the composition must still be sound; in a good wimmelbild image, the details are rendered with lower prominence simply by diminishing size: priority of reading is taken care of by distance or other spatial cues. We don’t have this sort of option in a watch, but we can reduce contrast and add in subtle texture – a designed object is much more like a painting than a photograph since we must consciously choose every included element. Thus the principles of wimmelbild and reductionism are not so much conflicting as complimentary – when applied in balance, which is of course another underlying principle of a good photograph… MT


Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop videos, and the individual Email School of Photography. You can also support the site by purchasing from B&H and Amazon – thanks!

We are also on Facebook and there is a curated reader Flickr pool.

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved


  1. Simply put, this watch looks great.

    I have a personal “filter” for watches. I need to be able to get a notion how late it is in dim light, without my glasses on. That limit’s the choice to dark hands on bright, or bright hands on dark, and sufficiently big hands and little distractions. I wipe away all others, and there are lots of others today…
    As an additional benefit, minimalist watches tend to be the most beautiful ones in my eyes, though there are exceptions.

    Best regards

  2. How fascinating! I had no idea you were also a designer, but it makes sense really. You have so much design talent that photography is perhaps a small part of what you really do. You’ve also taught me a new word today: reductionism. I need to practice this at my home since I’m a collector of sorts and collections just keep growing. Time to pare down!

Thoughts? Leave a comment here and I'll get back to you.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: