Design: Seeing Without Thinking

Jon Myers ✈
Jun 3, 2013 · 5 min read

One of the most potent questions designers should be asking themselves in the creative process is:

What jumps out?

What your audience immediately sees without conciously thinking much about it and how to design for it.

Some designers might think I’m referencing the Call to Action, and that’s true, but that’s the low-hanging fruit. This goes much deeper.

There’s some interesting science behind this question of what jumps out. When you apply this science to your work, it can boost the results and satisfaction your designs deliver.

Preattentive Processing

This is a phenomenon that occurs in the brain’s low-level visual system. Simply, Preattentive Processing describes a limited set of visual cues the brain can rapidly process, what jumps out in your audience’s mind.

It’s your brain filtering and detecting patterns you feel are important.

One cue the brain filters is color. It’s something most people have an opinion about and it’s use is dependent upon context.

Researchers have identified over 18 visual cues wired into our brains and the list keeps growing. These cues range from the orientation of lines, thickness of lines and blinking, to the density of visual objects to motion, velocity and so on. The cues are illustrated below.

The Cues

Your eyes are immediately drawn to these contrasts and your brain is asking - why is this like that? What’s it saying to me?

As a designer, understanding these cues and smartly integrating them to move users to their goals can significantly improve the user-experience of your designs.

For a deeper dive into this subject I suggest you check this out.

Data Visualization

This concept has informed my practice of design for a long time and coupled with my business background applying it has given me an edge.

I first stumbled upon Preattentive Processing about 14 years ago. The godfather of infoviz Edward Tufte probably put it on my radar. At that time I was focused on data visualization, designing ways to visualize and act on complex information.

This question, what jumps out was a critical one to answer, and in almost all cases, we had to sort and rank events in the data we were visualizing. There were many things that needed to jump out, and we had to decide what visual cues to apply to those things.

Preattentive Processing provided a nice framework to support these design decisions.

It’s worth mention here, with the advent of and brouhaha surrounding BigData! - you’ll see this concept get more mainstream attention.

Making It Work

Applying Preattentive Processing for Designers

From landing pages to interfaces that delight, the understanding of and application of this concept can go a long way. It’s something all designers should be thinking about.

Sorting and Ranking Priorities

You’ve heard “don’t make me think”. Some of the best interfaces help users see without thinking. Activities, tasks and goals within your applications have different priorities for your users. The more you can use visuals to guide users through these tasks, the less they’ll think and the happier they will be.

To do

  1. List the tasks the user wants to accomplish in your application. List the goals.
  2. Assign a value of 1 - 10 to these and sort them.
  3. Consider the visual cues that make sense for the tasks.
  4. Rank cues based on the task.
  5. Do the blink test and note - what jumps out.


Alerts: A high-priority alert in your application may have a value of 10. You may apply blinking to alerts in visual elements if they are communicating critical information. A low-level alert displaying non-critical information may have a value of 5. In this case, a change in color may suffice.

Again, do you need to make these elements jump out?

A Mental Model

Just be mindful, but don’t overdo it

I’m putting this out there just for thinking and discussion. Another key takeaway here is not to overdo it. Do I go through these checklists all the time when designing? Usually not, but it depends on the complexity of what I’m designing. Having another mental model, a way of thinking about design certainly can’t hurt.

With Google Glass and the Leap Motion sensor, experimental interfaces like touch, and touch and gesture based interfaces becoming the norm, these these design principles will have even more application.

Figure out what jumps and go design the future.

    Jon Myers ✈

    Written by

    Chief Design Officer at Liquid Exchange. - Follow me on Twitter — @jonmyers

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