Person-centred Perception: building a model

Alastair Somerville
5 min readAug 3, 2017

This post is an attempt to prototype an explanation of a model about perception that is centred around the individual but recognises how social, cultural and historical values affect the person in that moment.

It’s also a model to try and show how the diversity of human perception is valuable as it enables us to perceive many futures. The personal bias to one view of Now and a relatively delimited view of Then is natural but when designing to support human experiences you need to recognise the bigger picture of possible futures across places, peoples and cultures.

So this model is built in a sequence of 5 parts.

1 Personal perception

I do a lot of work on sensory and emotional design and that stuff is pretty foundational to understanding how humans experience and find meaning as they live their lives.

One key point that I sometimes drift over (generally because I’m concentrating on teaching understanding of emotion in sense making) is why sensing and perceiving are not the same thing.

Perception is not just sensory information being sorted and passed to the mind (also note that embodied cognition makes that idea of passing along data slightly tricky).

Perception is senses now, mixed with memories from the past all patched together with imagination.

People do not perceive things in the same way at the same time in the same place. It’s not possible.

2 Controlling load and building consensus

Particularly on the West, the fact that everyone is perceiving the Here and Now is different ways freaks people out.

This is where design can help.

The human capacity to perceive many possible realities has been policed through spiritual and architectural methods in the past. Currently, science and information design are used.

The personal perception is framed to delimit relevant information and boundaries set to delineate the information space.

People find this helpful as it controls the cognitive load they must bear and also, in modern societies, it reduces friction from perceiving alternative realities from friends and neighbours.

People want to have a sense of their individuality but not so much that they will be judged as odd.

Diversity and divergence are tightly bound and easily confused.

3 Consensus Reality

Consensus Reality is an idea that appears in Jungian Process Theory. It’s useful in beginning to show the larger systems that manage and control personal perception.

People are social and they want to be social (always balanced with need for solitude – contradiction and eccentricities underly most human behaviour).

Consensus is people unconsciously and consciously choosing to perceive only the realities that the people they live with seem to agree on.

This is unlike sensory perception. This is in the conversations that share ideas of what is going on, what things mean and what they are.

This is epistemology and storytelling.

In this time and place, only certain meanings are right. Metaphors and affordances exist in this consensus.

Yet that change and, as human perception is bad with slow change, we don’t notice.

4 Homology

I was reading some anthropology lately and the idea of homology seemed helpful.

The idea that societies have shifting ideas of consensus reality but which context backwards and forwards in time. That certain things enable people to place themselves in the moment of Now but actually understand how it relates to their idea of the Past and the possible Future.

Artefacts like the Bible are mentioned as informational objects that exist over time and yet slowly change in meaning. The use of the I Ching similarly connects past thru present to possible futures.

Homology (which as an idea I may be horribly misusing) seems helpful in showing the way cultural and social change is controlled over time by allowing symbols to exist permanently yet not mean the same thing.

Divergence is allowed. The contradictions are smoothed out. Diversity is enabled.

5 Many Futures

Finally, this offers the hopeful possibility of a world of many people, many perceptions and many futures.

Maybe individual perception is framed and bounded in the Here and Now by design and consensus but, in a global information society, it becomes possible to cross the homological streams.

To use the intersecting realities and perceptions to offer alternative possibilities.

To use the power of perception to see Now differently.

To see new futures.

The value of diversity to diverge from dystopia.


This is all a model I’m thinking of using to explain how Information Architecture is important to our futures.

I’m aware that it may seem strange but does it make sense?

Please let me know.

Additional sketches

(update 6th August 2017)

Just a quick addendum of sketches from pre & post writing this post which may add some different context.

Individual model within social model within global model

The scalability of model from micro to macro is important as it needs to link from individual perception thru to their position within their own society and how that is also within larger context of a country’s history and global culture.

Micro/Macro possibilities

Modelling contexts of culture, place and time does enable discussions of micro (personal experience of culture and change over time) and macro (relative cultural meaning of place relative to history and other cultures).

Design framing

How to apply this model to design matters and it is the making and holding of frames and delineation of boundaries that design, education and politics can play out.

Framing thru design is, as discussed earlier, necessary for cognitive comfort. However, the design choices made affect how a person perceives their current and future states of being.


Here are a few question arising from the Frame/Boundaries discussion.

They are, for me, about personal agency, independence and intention.

There are dark pattern possibilities within all this but I’m more interested in positive change and futures.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX