Blog Post Series 1

Picture Interpretation: Appearance or Intention?

Communication is an important aspect of human lives. It is vital for humans to properly communicate with each other in order to avoid misunderstandings and ensure harmony for the survival of the race. Imagine sending a message to your crush on Facebook asking for help in your math assignment. For some divine reason, he says yes and because of too much happiness from the fact that your crush actually agreed to help you (and the fact that someone will actually help you solve your math problem), you wanted to send your gratitude. You innocently send a smiley face, some hearts and a flying kiss emoji to him along with a thank you. You see under the chat balloon that he has seen your message but is not replying. He ended up not going to your tutorial session. Deep in your mind you’re thinking he might just had a cold that day, but deeper in your heart you think, maybe he thought of the hearts as too much. Did he think you were hitting up on him? You had no way of knowing…

Taking off from our painted scenario, we continue the discussion with the realization of the importance of intent in communication. Aside from the personal biases of the interpreter or the person being communicated to, intent also plays an important role in the interpretation of messages or any form of communication there is for the matter. Adults are assumed to have little to no problem sending and seeing (realizing) intent in everyday living even in the face of ambiguity, but what about children? They, though not as much as adults, are exposed to all kinds of stimuli, too. Are they capable of considering intention, too? Emma Armitage and Melissa Allen (2015) tried to find out.

In their study, Armitage and Allen (2015) specifically used visual forms- pictures and drawings- of communication. One hundred and 51 children aged 3 to 6 years old were asked to participate in their experiment. They were divided into two groups according to their age bracket, the 3 and 4 year-olds in one group (group A) and the 5 and 6 year-olds in another (group B). For this experiment they wanted to test if the children in both groups will be able to consider the intent of the artist in interpreting the photograph or the drawing by altering the color of the depicted picture from the intended object. First, the children were presented three objects- a blue duck, a teddy, and a pink duck. The experimenter told the children that they were going to photograph or draw one of the objects (e.g. blue duck), (“I am going to draw a picture of a blue duck”). However the subsequent picture depicted the object in grayscale or the color of the other object with the same shape (i.e. the pink duck). For the photograph, the experimenter told the children that the printer was “acting weird” that day and that the colors weren’t coming out well or as were expected.  The experimenters think that in interpreting the picture, changing the color of the depicted object to another color will check if children consider the intent of the artist more than what they actually see.

The children were then asked three questions after being presented with the picture of the intended object. One was a verbal question (“What is this a picture of?”), the second was a behaviour question (“Can you pass me this (the object in the picture)?”), and the third was a memory question (“What did I mean to take a picture of?”). If the child answered the intended object, with its color (i.e. blue duck), the response was recorded as the child being able to take into account the intention of the artist. Accordingly, if the child answered the depicted picture (i.e. pink or gray duck for the grayscale picture), they relied more on the appearance for their interpretation. If the child answered anything other than those two (e.g. the teddy or forgot), the response was not considered for analysis.


                                                        Figure 1. Object array

Results of the study showed that the children gave intentional responses in the behavior question than the verbal question. In terms of photograph versus drawing, the children considered the intent of the artist more when they were presented with the drawing than when presented the photograph. An explanation to this is that the photographs showed a more realistic representation of the object which increased the children’s use of appearance cues (clues) and therefore decreased their consideration of the artist’s intention. In terms of change of color, group A children considered the intent more in the grayscale condition than in the pink condition. Developmentally, we can say that 3-4 year old children employed dual representation (DeLoache, 1987)- meaning that they can already think of pictures as both objects in their own right and as representations of other things or entities. Interestingly in the pink condition, group A children gave more intentional responses than group B. This tells us that when objects are meant to represent one object but strongly resembles another, the older group (B) relied more on appearance cues than intention in the interpretation of the picture. A possible explanation to this is the experience of older children with printers and cameras. The appearance of the final picture is less closely related to the photographer’s intention and more linked to the action of the camera (printing a different color).

This study highlights the role of appearance cues and intention in visual communication. More than the intention in drawing or depicting a picture or a drawing, humans (children, at least) rely on cues and other signals in interpreting what they see. The saying “What you see is what you get” may perhaps be considered true for many cases. Thus, it is vital for elements of a visual representation to be properly employed to ensure that whatever it is standing for, or the message it aims to send across is accurately represented. In our society, photojournalists serve as a concrete example of people who make use of this philosophy. Although admittedly, their dynamics of capturing a relevant event is much more complicated, their case is similar in that the people’s interpretation of their photographs is reliant on the appearance cues (e.g. subjects’ facial expressions, movement, background, etc.) present in the photograph. Intent almost always comes second, if it dawns at all.  In the context of their job, they are aware of how critical their job is in educating and updating people on the important and relevant events in the society. With this in mind, they are also aware that ambiguity will undermine their goal of sending their intended news or message across.

On a lighter note, we just have to remember that it is important to be careful and wise in using visual representations when sending messages across. So the next time you send that text message to your crush, you better be careful with your smileys and flying kiss emojis. Most importantly, you now know to be careful with (sending) your heart(s)!


Armitage, E., & Allen, M. L. (2015). Children’s picture interpretation: Appearance or intention?. Developmental Psychology, 51(9), 1201-1215. doi:10.1037/a0039571

DeLoache, J. S. (1987). Rapid change in the symbolic functioning of very young children. Science238, 1556–1557. 10.1126/science.2446392



One thought on “Picture Interpretation: Appearance or Intention?

  1. Pingback: Blog Post Series 1: Art and Visual Communication | Shookt

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