In a narrower sense, reading refers to the activity of absorbing information through one or more of our five senses. In a wider sense, reading also includes the process of interpretation, which I consider to be an active human engagement with the data received. In the process of interpreting, the reader transforms and appropriates sensory input into information that becomes relevant for him, his environment and his further decisions. Thus a middle step arises between input and meaning. Of course, both processes, reading and interpreting, are not always consciously experienced, let alone controlled: but they are permanently active and responsible for a large number of our actions.
This first conclusion – that we read more than only text – immediately calls into question the second preconception at play; which is the dominant view that reading must be learned, usually during primary education. In fact, however, reading and interpreting are not wholly acquired skills: they constitute part of our biological DNA as human beings. Even before birth, nature genetically equips us with the skills for reading specific triggers and basic patterns of reacting to these, all of which were established over the course of human evolution. At birth, we already know how to interpret certain situations and have internalised certain decisions. Due to sexual reproduction, our genetic makeup is individually developed and differently adapted; however, in many areas our conditioning remains inherently human, with all its limitations and abilities. We simply know how to do certain things. For example, infants possess a survival-oriented mechanism that tells them to hold their breath when they fall into water; another example is our controllable and therefore targeted hearing. Although these patterns are on the whole reflexes, they were originally consciously tested patterns of reactions to external stimuli, subsequently internalised and further refined. Building on these prenatally determined and culturally conditioned basic reading patterns, we develop from our experiences a world view proper to ourselves, which we hone both consciously and subconsciously throughout our lives. We learn from experienced and hypothetical situations. The information we filter out as significant, both experienced and learned, expands – at various speeds – from an existence that we are conscious of into a subconscious one, and thus becomes part of intuition, an equally unconscious instinctive pattern that manifests no obvious influence from reason. Intuition, therefore, does not refer to an ‘organic’ phenomenon – often described as a ‘gut instinct’ – but rather, more precisely, to exactly these kinds of internalised experiences. Intuition makes up a part of our capacity for judgment and is employed more often during the design process than we usually assume. We feel that something is right or is going in the right direction – or that it is not.
Man is in many ways unconsciously aware of his environment. We read and interpret, see and gauge, and finally come to a decision. But as already proposed, I don’t understand reading and interpretation as merely passive processes, but rather as active ones, as intellectual achievements of the human brain and, in certain instances, also of the human body. Man often feels the need to assign meaning to things and situations. Not only does he read his environment passively, he also longs to read it actively.
In scientific research and art, this desire for meaning is widely accepted and is a precondition for being successful. Although it is often overlooked, science and art share the core goal of discovering and creating new world views. Both artists and scientists aren’t happy with the current state of affairs, but instead make it their mission to deconstruct and challenge orthodoxy and conventional ways of seeing/doing. New perspectives develop in the form of theories and new arguments in the form of experiments, whose consequences change our collective social consciousness. However, the impulse to uncover meaning doesn’t only manifest itself in pivotal professional discoveries, but also in more broadly anchored psychological phenomena like religion and superstition, our relationship to money and the psychologically important ‘sense of achievement’. We are prone and even willing to assign meaning to things even when, in a larger sense, they don’t have any. We seek meaning in dreams and allow statistics derived from collected individual interpretations to give us empirically ‘accurate’ readings. We observe today’s weather and make conclusions about tomorrow’s. These and many other examples point to a desire to interpret, an internal impulse to see relevance and, when necessary, to produce it.
This desire to interpret is the precondition for a process that I will call relative reading. Relative reading can be seen as an extension of absolute reading, since the reader reads not only absolute values in the form of isolated facts or other closed realities, but interprets situations in their entirety, and processes them relative to the context in which he experiences them and according to his own background.
In a typographic context, when reading a text, the reader assigns meaning not only based on the linguistically defined content (words and sentences), but also based on the relationships between the visual marks, the forms that make these up, and between them and their context. Although this phenomenon happens in the reading of letters, it originated in the reading of natural occurrences. A herring is only small so long as it is seen in a human context, but for plankton the very same herring is a monster. In a more abstract example, a small black surface on a larger white one can call up a great variety of meanings not only by means of its size, but also depending on its position.