Shapes and eye movements (2021–2022)

An eye tracking study with 13 master students of Communication Design and Creative Strategies (and me) as participants @ Conducted 14.11.2021; each “stimulus” was shown for 4 seconds. Participants thought they would see posters. No specific task was given. Each video pair shows first the saccades (jumps) and fixations of the eyes of all participants. Secondly, a heatmap aggregates the length of all participant’s fixations (blue: short – red: long) – a descriptive (spatial) statistic.

A simple continuous shape – how is it looked at?

The eyes seem to reach out to the endpoints of the line (0.0–1.0 sec).

Then the eyes concentrate on the direction changes in the middle and upper end – which can be seen with the heatmap:


A shape that branches out

Fixations are concentrated where the line branches out …

… as the heatmap shows:


A ragged line

Fixations are distributed more evenly across the shape.

The middle and the lower endpoint are more concentrated on:

So far … we can say: the shapes where explored with several saccades and short fixations. Shapes seem to be repainted with eye movements. Also, discontinuity seems to get more attention (the area of acute vision is shifted to discontinuities).

The eye movements not only direct our focus on peculiarities of the shape. By “repainting” the shape they may also deliver interesting information about directions. Like a wanderer experiences going up in the muscles, the eyes learn about the stimulus as they take a walk …?

So these were simples lines. Maybe the viewers just took what was presented and dutifully explored it – lacking more interesting stimuli. What happens with more complex, compound shapes?


Compound shapes

After just one second the tiny, top right rectangle is fixated!

Only later the lower right spike is explored.

Can we say?: The overall “scene” is seen (fixations in the big rectangle). And … the “outlier” is inspected – although it is very small.

Another (relative) concentration on an “outlier”:

Also here, the tiniest shape gets most attention:

As if a tiny detail matters? But is is not only detail – also its relationship to the surrounding elements. The contrast of size may also be of interest here.

Still, shapes are explored with eye movements:

And again, more complex aspects of the compound shape are “investigated” – see the indent at left-most corner. The lower part (the oblique triangle) is rarely fixated.

A striking example of concentration on a discontinuity – the crossing of two lines (this video has half speed):

What’s with this cross? Why so much focus?

… also here, a concentration on a discontinuity (and an “outlier”):

… and here, two distinct areas of focus: on the almost geometrical center of the triangle on the left – and on the “antenna” on top of the rectangle:

With three distinct, simple shapes we get:


… there is focus on the tight triangle, and then on the area between the two rectangles.


In summary:

  1. Simple shapes may be explored in full along their edges and thereby are almost repainted.

  2. Discontinuity is of interest. The space between shapes – their relation? – is looked at.

  3. Fixations may center within bigger shapes/arrangements.

1. Simple shapes may be explored in full along their edges and thereby are almost repainted.

Eye movements are actually following the shape. Shapes are scanned (abgetastet). Like a hand that feels along a shape. It is more obvious with touch, that the movement of the hand and arms provide an additional sense of orientation. In the same way eye movements may actually contribute to a feeling of orientation – a “spatial feeling” (Kepes, 1969)? (Falcinelli (2011: 151) speculates similarly about saccades as actually disorienting.)

2. Discontinuity is of interest. The space between shapes – their relation? – is looked at.

Again, this is similar to touch where differences are very interesting “spaces”. Discontinuities are encountered and explored – eyes stare.

3. Fixations may center within bigger shapes/arrangements.

Maybe the visual field is taken under control of retinal vision here with shape recognition as described by Gestalt psychologists (Wertheimer, 1923)?


The relation of vision to touch has been highlighted repeatedly by researchers.

“The look, we said, envelops, palpates, espouses the visible things. As though it were in a relation of pre-established harmony with them, as though it knew them before knowing them, it moves in its own way with its abrupt and imperious style, and yet the views taken are not desultory— I do not look at a chaos, but at things— so that finally one cannot say if it is the look or if it is the things that command. […] It is a marvel too little noticed that every movement of my eyes— even more, every displacement of my body— has its place in the same visible universe that I itemize and explore with them, as, conversely, every vision takes place somewhere in the tactile space. There is double and crossed situating of the visible in the tangible and of the tangible in the visible; the two maps are complete, and yet they do not merge into one. The two parts are total parts and yet are not superposable.” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 133–134)

The results of this eye tracking study resonate with this idea. I would summarize it as an idea of active vision, bodily active vision. We are not only looking at stuff, we are continuously looking around. Eyeballs “touch” shapes. Vision explores the outer world enabled/supported/structured by one’s own body movements, eye movements.

Implications for graphic design

Eye movements are physical acts. The eyes actively wander across visual features. This activity gives the viewer some (additional) information about the visual world. So partly we do not only see, but experience the world by the muscular activity of the eyes. Graphic design should take care which ways it proposes to the wandering eyes.