Seeing Faces

Food for Thought

I bought these Japanese sweets from a fancy store in midtown. When I plated them, I couldn’t avoid making a face. I tried to avoid but gave up. When I served it, my wife was like, “What the hell is this?” True; it’s distracting. These are supposed to be high-end delicacies; the plate shouldn’t look like a cluelessly happy robot. Our ability to read facial expressions is so sophisticated that a slight alteration can turn into a different emotion, and we seem to want to read everything as a face whenever possible. We often find faces in abstract patterns and randomly placed objects. I’m sure car designers are keenly aware of this.

Whenever I came across a design project where the client wanted a human face, I discouraged them unless they had lots of time and money. It’s easy enough to draw a face but most people do not realize how picky they are about faces. They think they’ll approve it right away, but that’s never the case. Once they see the face, it evokes all sorts of unexpected emotions and memories, and they realize that they don’t want to associate themselves with it. It then leads to neverending iterations until it’s perfectly right. If you have to satisfy multiple people, it’s almost impossible.

If you are a portrait photographer, you are familiar with the fact that most people have specific mental images of their own faces that do not match the reality. You have to shoot a whole bunch of them to find the one that matches the version in your client’s head.

All fashion models have exceptionally beautiful faces but subtle differences can make or break a career. Human faces do not just evoke emotions; they tell stories. You could write a whole fantasy or screenplay around someone’s face; someone gentle and kind but can get angry about political issues, who grew up poor but went to an elite college, loves Mexican food and Reggae, and lives in Bushwick. You could provide this much detail, and if you get it right, other people would magically agree. That’s why developing a cartoon character and casting an actor or model is so hard. Some part of the story is almost always amiss.