“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” —John Locke

Yesterday was Locke’s birthday. He would have turned 385 years old, except he died in 1704. 

Still, his thought continues to provoke and inspire. Among other bold ideas in social, political, and economic theory, Locke proposed that at birth, the mind is like a blank slate (tabula rasa). He believed that we gain knowledge only by what we experience through our senses.

And, as revealed in this quote, Locke believed that seeing the written word is at best a prerequisite to true insight. Reading doesn’t equate command of concept; critical introspection is necessary. The senses are tools to attain knowledge.

Reading text and observing images can be seen as analogous activities. Text, after all, is a set of forms that we’ve learned to associate with meanings. And images are always forms open to be associated with meanings. From the Impressionists to the Cubists, image always invites the question, “What does this remind you of?”

To follow Locke’s quote, then, viewing an image only furnishes the mind with materials of knowledge. It is thinking through the layout, colors, and all other elements of design that makes what we see ours. Understanding how text and graphics work together empowers us to use them well—from expressing our thoughts to guiding the actions of others.

This is the essence of UX strategy.