By Tim Mickleburgh
Okay, it’s a curious preoccupation for a graphic designer, but why do dogs love to hang their heads out of car windows? Is it a Harley kind of thing, the wind in the fur? Perhaps it’s the fleas: jump in a wind tunnel and you lose your host. I think it’s the nose. Dogs use their noses like we use our eyes, constantly sniffing around, following scents, chasing down odors, exploring the world in depth. Now if the beast sticks his snout out of the window of a moving car, the smells come to him. No need for effort, no running around, just a total odorfest, a perfumed cornucopia delivered straight up the nostrils.
Now consider the driver. He’s a web designer, say, doesn’t get away from the computer much, but today he’s on a road trip. He likes to drive. He likes to throw on some tunes, pop a bevy of choice in the cup-holder, and just kick back and watch the world flow by. He has many advantages over the faithful hound, especially in the choice of music, but one thing they have in common is this delight in the sensory world delivered effortlessly, in this case right to the eyes.
We love the sensation of motion, or more specifically relative motion, because it gives the world depth. A designer learns that depth can be an elusive quality to create, and it’s because our visual system cannot see depth directly through the retinal image, but has to construct it from other perceptual clues. At close distances, out to an arms-length or so, we can compare the retinal images from two eyes to form an accurate image in depth (try threading a needle with one eye closed if you don’t believe me), but at greater distances we rely mostly on relative motion. As we move, things in the environment appear to move relative to us, and to each other, and it is this that makes the world look three-dimensional rather than flat like a photograph. When we drive a car, the motion of the car intensifies this sensation to the point that we are watching the perfect 3D movie. We become the human counterpart of the dog with his nose out of the window.
There is one teensy thing to be aware of. We are talking about relative motion. Unlike the dog, we don’t have the wind in our face, and when the car is moving at a steady speed we have no sensory clues at all that affirm that it is we who are moving past the environment, rather than the other way round. Technically, we cannot perceive kinetic energy, only changes in kinetic energy, like riding a bicycle into a wall. We have enormous kinetic energy in a moving car, yet it feels as though we are sitting on the couch at home where we have, let’s say, minimal kinetic energy.
So enjoy the view by all means: a good pair of eyes is one of the delights of being a designer, let alone a human being. But if the phone rings, let the dog answer. He’s not the one driving