Have you ever found an image or video that got you staring, trying to figure out why the elements don’t fit together? Did you feel the pain when looking at a cactus or a syringe? If you did, it is likely because it failed to establish an isomorphic correspondence. This concept plays a vital role in shaping the visual layout of our digital interfaces. Besides being ever-present even outside the digital world. But what is it exactly?
Philosophy and technology: Two faces of the same coin
Many of the technological advancements we enjoy today were established far beyond our times. Ancient philosophers were the first to define how artificial intelligence should be based on logic and math, to use passwords to identify themselves, and even to create the first encryption methods. Philosophy and technology are oftentimes like two sides of the same coin, intertwined yet distinct. Philosophy seeks to understand the world better while technology strives to improve it, both based on our comprehension of it. This can also often be adapted when thinking about visual communication aspects like design in marketing for instance.
The concept of isomorphic correspondence comes from philosophy as well. More specifically from a school of thought in 20th century Germany. It’s based on the idea that our brains organize visual information in predictable ways, which is why we can see a bunch of random shapes and immediately recognize them as a face. Our brains just automatically group things together based on their properties.
Or, in simple words, when we look at an image we don’t perceive the isolated elements and all their features separately, we instead perceive the scene as a whole. Bear in mind, however, that isomorphic correspondence is just one piece of Gestalt theory. This theory in its entirety makes graphic designers study, understand and even predict the patterns in images and how users can perceive them.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
Think of it like this: snow, carrot, ball, sticks. Even just reading through that list and our minds instantly want to link them and create a single unitary image, in this case, a snowman. That is just how our brain works when we look at visual interfaces. We don’t just see individual buttons, text, and images. We perceive them as a whole.
This is why the concept of isomorphic correspondence is crucial when designing digital interfaces. By establishing a clear relationship between the various elements on the screen, designers can ensure that users perceive the interface as a cohesive whole. In this way, isomorphic correspondence is the foundation upon which effective visual communication rests. Whether we’re talking about designing websites, mobile app development, or any other type of digital interface, the importance of this concept cannot be overstated.
— luigi maiello (@luigimai) May 4, 2015
And while it only relatively recently started being used so extensively in the digital world, many of the things in the real world do convey isomorphic correspondence messages, such as a road sign. As soon as a driver sees it, they realize the meaning it has. They don’t stop at the white octagon border, the font, or the colors, their mind just focuses on the meaning.
Without isomorphic correspondence, the sign might be confusing or difficult to interpret. But by creating a clear relationship between these elements, the sign becomes easily understandable, even from a distance or at high speeds. And the fun part is, our minds often do the job themselves. And when they don’t, companies and brands are there to plan the perfect correspondence for us.
Isomorphic correspondence is the relationship between two elements that gives them a clear purpose and meaning. It’s the way in which designers use shapes, colors, and fonts to convey a message that our brains recognize almost instantly. It can translate to human emotion or trigger something in the audience.
With a clearer picture of isomorphic correspondence and how it came to be, I was led to a personal conclusion, that maybe if we really want to see what the innovations of tomorrow will be, we should look at yesterday’s philosophy. Time and time again we’ve witnessed similar situations, so I’ll go read up on some philosophy and I invite you to do the same.
YouTube: Visual Psychology / Gestalt Principles / Isomorphic Correspondence (George H. Nowack)
Photo credit: The feature image is symbolic and has been done by Christopher Isak with Midjourney for TechAcute.