Applying the Panofsky method to understanding design

Erwin Panofsky was an art historian who, in 1932, studied the significance of iconography and believed that for an audience to find the meaning behind artwork or design, a cultural context of analysis needs to be applied.

Panofsky conceptualized three levels associated with any piece of design or art. Any great work begins with research or understanding the design challenge. The first level is your Primary Analysis; often, this detailed observation compiles the information into a body of research. If the audience is viewing the piece, they can immediately bring meaning to an image by associating it with their own experiences. The first level brings some familiarity but not complete understanding or appreciation into what they are seeing.

The second level, Conventional Analysis, is a layer of understanding from a good base. It brings prior knowledge of the conventional meaning and allows the visual to communicate more by recalling the events taking place within the image. Typically, this level’s purpose has a deep connection to cause and effect or the concept of affordance. Visual hierarchy is established by using whitespace, branding, and other effects such as colouring and aesthetics, and composition. The audience begins to understand the meaning behind what he or she is noticing.

The third level, the Intrinsic Analysis, is where the audience does understand why the designer or artist is taking a particular direction with the visual. Because the audience has spent significant time analyzing and interacting with the design, there becomes a philosophical belief of trust and a manifestation of expressed values. When the design’s visual is abstract, and the viewer finally understands, there is often an ‘aha’ moment. This is the value of going on a guided art tour. The curator often provides the details necessary for one to appreciate the artist’s vision.

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