By David P. Hutcheson, AIA, LEED AP

There’s an architect, interior designer, engineer, construction administrator, and a social worker sitting at a bar. After a while the bartender announces to the group, “Hey, by the way, we just finished renovating the space so I’m asking folks what they think!”

The architect complimented the ascending ceiling heights as she had approached the bar. The interior designer was particularly inspired by the mood lighting and the colorful fabrics in the sitting nooks. The engineer noticed how stuffy it felt and that they probably needed to finetune the cooling system. And the construction administrator shrewdly noted that the workers had forgotten to caulk around the urinals. Finally, the social worker said simply: “I don’t know about all that. I just know it makes me feel good!” At that moment the others felt bested.

In their defense, no one had been the more skilled observer. They were simply expressing how the space had resonated with their well-exercised skillsets. But they realized they had not freed themselves of their prejudicial shackles and “looked” at the space in the way it was intended to be viewed. They had just been reminded of the importance of viewing what is before us — with emotion and child-like curiosity.

“Lucas” by Chuck Close

When shooting close-ups of actors, Hollywood directors of the classic black and whites would smear petroleum jelly on the camera lens to give the scene an ethereal quality … as if the viewer were looking through tear-soaked eyes. This trick granted the audience permission to view the actor with empathy, stripping away any rush to be distracted by blemishes or defects.

In much the same way I will step away from a design I’m working on, take off my glasses (or squint), and judge it using a broad-brush spectrum of analysis; generalities such as are its significant parts balanced within the whole? How does it relate to what lies near it? Does it stand on its own? Interestingly, I find I can see these things with more clarity if viewed from a distance or through “Vaseline-smeared lenses.”

In our zealous pursuit of being savvy “observers,” maybe we’ve allowed those observations to become too laser-focused and critical, driven by our own expertise and the expectations others might have of our opinions. Maybe we’re proud of our visual acumen because it sets us apart from our competition. We might think that by being a critical observer we can “see” things that others can’t — or don’t — which may be true. However, if we’re not empathic travelers, over time we’ll unwittingly establish visual habits whereby we view the scenery around us using only our own narrow collection of filters … scanning for the same talking points and eliminating from our view all those things that don’t advance our own relevance. Our expert visual analysis may indeed be helpful, but if we look too closely, we might overlook the intended emotion.