As I walk into the Metropolitan Café in Philadelphia, I realize my glasses are smudged. Normally I wouldn't care. But I am meeting Amy E. Herman, an expert on "visual intelligence," who teaches business leaders, medical personnel, police forces, and others how to be acutely observant of the world around them. Surely she will notice my glasses. If I take them off, on the other hand, I'll have to squint to read my notes, and she'll notice that, too. Either way, I will not make a good impression.
The author photo from Herman's new book, Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life, shows a woman with long hair. I don't see anyone like that. So I sit down at a table and take out a copy of the book, at which point a short-haired woman at the next table asks if I'm Leigh. I glance at the picture of Herman on the inside cover flap. Yes, that is Herman's face. In the photo, she is even wearing the same earrings. But I did not recognize her because her hair was different. In visual intelligence terms, I am sucking.
I sit down across from Herman and quickly scrutinize her neat blue suit, her silver jewelry, and the remains of her breakfast. "I just had dental work, which is why I am drinking coffee through a straw," she says. The woman is drinking coffee through a straw! How did I not see that? What is wrong with me?
Herman, who is in town to run one of her "Art of Perception" seminars for executives at the utility PECO, assures me that I am no more Mr. Magoo-like than the next person. Everyone misses the critical information that surrounds us, she says, because we don't know where to look or how to look or whether what we're seeing is important or what questions to ask about it. In her seminars and now this book, Herman helps people improve their observational, critical thinking, and communication skills, by asking them to see--really see--works of art.
Here are a few things, according to Herman, that business people can learn from art:
Who we are colors what we see.
Observation--the taking in of detail--is objective. Perception--how we interpret what we observe--is subjective. We draw conclusions and make decisions based on our perception, which can be influenced by more than a dozen factors, including education, experience, values, and whether we got a good night's sleep. The better we understand what might alter our perception, the more accurate our observations will be.
For business people, art is a reminder that what to them seems "obvious" (one of Herman's least favorite words, along with "clearly") may seem very different to someone else. "Business people want hard answers, and sometimes when you are looking at art there is no hard answer," says Herman. "You say it's this. The person next to you says it's this."
To understand the perceptions of others, says Herman, ask them. She recalls visiting an installation by South African artist Jane Alexander at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. Life-size human figures--mostly naked and with the heads of beasts--had been arranged around the church, in the aisles and chapels. Herman asked the opinions of half a dozen regular congregants, including an elderly woman, "who practically spat on me," she says. "She said, 'This is the work of the devil.' Then the guard tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Don't listen to her. This is the coolest stuff they've ever had here.'"
What isn't there matters.
We tend to act and make decisions based on the information we have. The information that's missing can also be important, so long as we take time to identify what we don't know. Entrepreneurs are particularly good at this. Countless companies have launched because someone went looking for something and couldn't find it.
"Business leaders are barraged with information, but sometimes there is a big gap in what they know that prevents them from making the necessary connections and arriving at a conclusion," says Herman. She likes to illustrate this with a photograph by Ellsworth Kelly of a broken window in Paris. The dark glass, shattered on a diagonal, occupies much of the picture. But look closely and you'll notice a man's legs peeking out from the bottom. That almost invisible detail reveals that this is not a study of an inanimate object, but a kind of portrait. Who the subject is, why his head is not visible above the glass, and many other questions go unanswered. "You do the best you can with the information you have," says Herman. "You identify what you don't know. Then you ask, if I could get additional information what would I most need to know?"
We can improve our visual intelligence.
A manager presides over a meeting "where people are falling asleep and fiddling with their phones or checked out," says Herman. "But he's oblivious to their expression and their body language. He just keeps talking." Business leaders who ignore the clues in their environment, says Herman, are also likely to miss opportunities to provide better service or course-correct a drifting project or retain a dissatisfied employee. Back in the days when predators lurked in the grass, people were more "situationally aware," says Herman. And we still become more alert in times of stress or danger. Herman cites as an example the terrorist attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi. One woman, who had brought in her young children for a cooking class, later described "noticing that the countertop she was cooking on was fortified, with a wall behind it. So while a lot of other people ran, she took her kids around to the back of the stove and put them on the floor." Many died fleeing into a chaotic situation where they couldn't tell the good guys from the bad guys, says Herman. The woman and her family lived because she quickly assessed her environment and identified a secure hiding place.
Herman says it is possible to improve observational acuity by practicing on art, which is often rich in visual information that must first be noticed and then decoded. She encourages people to go to a museum, choose one artwork that either attracts or repels them, and study it closely for five minutes. Note every visible detail--colors, shapes, shadows, the number of objects on a table, the fabric of a woman's dress. Can you tell where and when the scene is set? If there are people in it, what do you know about them? Then come up with three questions you cannot answer through visual analysis. The exercise "gives you a mini-test for how well you are observing something you've never seen before," says Herman.
Check out four more of Herman's exercises to test your own visual intelligence.