Why Everyone Draws a Coffee Cup the Same Way

Before you get any further into this article, grab a pencil and paper and draw a coffee cup. We're betting your beautiful sketch shows a cup drawn from the side with a thin, flattened oval on top to suggest a round cavity. Sound right? No, we're not mindreaders — blame the canonical perspective for giving it away.

Draw Me Like One of Your Coffee Cups

The canonical perspective is our preferred way of viewing an object. What that means is that there are specific, consistent ways people like to look at and picture objects. Think of the coffee cup from earlier. Most people wouldn't draw the cup from directly above — that's not how our brains like to think about coffee cups. Likewise, even though you probably see dogs and cats from directly above most often, when asked to draw one, you'd choose the canonical perspective every time.

Researchers Stephen Palmer, Eleanor Rosch, and Paul Chase studied these preferences in 1981. They found that for most things, humans have a magic viewing angle that's the most pleasing — a view from slightly above and at an approximately 45-degree angle from the front of the object. This goes for almost all objects, not just our friend the cup o' joe. You're possibly even constructing this angle in every selfie without even knowing it.

It's All About the Angle

That shared preference in perspective probably isn't just a cultural quirk, either. Experts think that the reason for that preference comes down mostly to the idea of maximizing the amount of information: The canonical perspective is the one in which you see the greatest number of surface features. In the case of the cup, you see the side, the inside, the lip, and the handle from this viewpoint. Basically, this angle gives us the most visual information about any given thing so we can identify it and better understand it.

The study that made these conclusions was done in 1981, but instances of canonical perspective are still all around us, and they're often there to help. Take computer icons, for example. These pop up in the canonical perspective (the trash can icon looks pretty similar to your coffee cup drawing, right?) because they need to convey a lot of information in a tiny amount of space. Though this angle is certainly not how we experience most things we come in contact with, our brains sure like it.

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Hear more about the intersections of art and psychology in "The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain" by Robert L. Solso. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto April 27, 2017

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