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7 Guidelines to create effective visual content

I truly believe in the power of visualisation. At GriDD, where I work, we use visualisation in almost every aspect of our work: it helps us think, explain, communicate, create and even evaluate.
The most important part of visualisation is that it is an effective vehicle for the information you want to convey, that your message sticks and the right goals are achieved.

In order to create effective visuals, it can be helpful to know more about human perception, thinking and learning. In this blog post I’ll share some information with you about that and provide you with a few guidelines to create effective visual content.

A little bit about the inner workings of your brain..

First off, there are limits to the information load your brain can process. Many people have heard of information overload [1].

Information overload occurs when there is too much information available causing a person to have difficulty understanding an issue and making decisions.

People often use this term when they have too much e-mail to go through or articles to read; when they can’t see the forest for the trees.
Related to this, but a little less well known is the term cognitive load [2], which is used in the field of cognitive psychology and learning sciences.

Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory. The working memory is the system in your brain responsible for processing information it receives from your senses, such as seeing or hearing.

Unfortunately, your working memory has limited capacity. When the cognitive load is too high for your working memory to process –for instance when you are seeing too many things at once-, learning, remembering and understanding are compromised. Which is definitely not what we want when we want our visual message to stick!

How to create effective visual content?

Luckily, the manner in which information is presented to a person can greatly influence the mental effort required to process it. With that in mind, here are a few guidelines for creating visual content:

1. Define a goal and know your audience.

This is always step one! To know what the goal of your visual message is and whom it is aimed at, is crucial to its design. It forms the basis for all your decisions you make. Think, for instance, about the knowledge level of your audience: do they understand your jargon and metaphors? If you choose a basket to represent shopping, is this something that would resonate with them? If not, trying to figure out what your representation means can cost a lot of effort and distracts from your message.

2. Be concise: eliminate the non-essential.

When designing effective content, your visuals should not be complex. Keep it simple and focus on clarity: don’t decorate too much. If your decoration has no function, maybe it is better left out.
This also goes for interesting information: stick to the essence of your message. Even though that statistical fact may be interesting, decide whether it is really essential to what you want to say.

3. Provide structure

Structure can be provided in the way visual elements are displayed, for instance by using a grid or a sequence. This creates familiarity and helps process information more quickly.
A different approach is to provide structure with a story. Stories attract attention and guide the viewer through visual information. For instance when trying to convey information about distribution of a product, invent a character and follow him in this order of that product.

4. Guide the eye with hierarchy and reading order

Create an informational hierarchy and direct the attention of the viewer by using visual cues. Apply Gestalt Principles [3]to your advantage. These are based on the idea that the mind perceives not just single visual elements, but groups them and sees them as a whole.

A few relevant principles are:

  • Principle of proximity
    All else being equal, elements that are closer together are seen as a group
Principle of proximity
  • Principle of similarity
    All else being equal, elements that look similar are seen as the same object and elements that look different as as part of a different object.
Principle of similarity
  • Principle of closure
    Objects such as shapes, letters, pictures, etc., as being whole when they are not complete.
Principle of closure

5. Align corresponding (visual) elements.

In static visuals, make sure corresponding text and visual are near each other to reduce the need for visual scanning and decrease the risk of having to split your audience’s attention. In visualisations using video, synchronisation is important: present narration and corresponding visual simultaneously so you don’t have to keep them in your memory.

6. Display information so that it is easier to remember

Related to the cognitive load theory of the working memory is Miller’s Magic Number [4]. Although memory capacity varies among people, it can be measured in smaller sets of information: chunks. The human brain can remember 7 +/- 2 chunks. So break complex information into smaller chunks, so the target audience can access, understand and recall the information easier.

As an example: what is easier to remember: 123456789 or 123–456–789? 
From 9 units of information to three chunks!

7. Be consistent.

Last but not least: be consistent. We are trained to see meaning in difference. Every noticeable difference could mean something to the viewer and needs to be explained, made consistent with the rest or left out. So be sure to be consistent in use of font, color, contrast, form, alignment etc. or make the difference very noticeable if you need it for your information hierarchy. Otherwise your audience will start to wonder about the reason for the difference, which requires mental effort and distracts from the message.

Want to learn more about this topic?

I’m always interested in a good conversation about effective information, visualisation or storytelling so don’t hesitate to contact me via e-mail or leave a message in the comments!

Learn how to use drawing for more effective communication: 
join us for training!
If you’re based in the Netherlands, you’re in luck! This fall we offer Bizz Draw Training to teach you how quickly drawn visual icons and structures in notes and on a whiteboard in meetings can help you become more effective. From scientific research we learn that a message is remembered better when it is captured in visuals rather than text. So start drawing now and join our Bizz Draw — basics and Bizz Draw — next steps training!

Read more
Also, if you want to explore on your own, these (Wikipedia) pages provide a good starting point: Information Overload | Cognitive Load | Working Memory | Gestalt Psychology | Miller’s Magic Number | Interesting paper: Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning by Mayer & Moreno (2009)

Or check out the references mentioned in this post:
[1] Toffler, A. (1970) Future Shock. New York.
[2] Sweller, J (1988). “Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning”. Cognitive Science 12 (2): 257–285. doi:10.1016/0364–0213(88)90023–7.
[3] Wertheimer, M. (1923). Laws of organization in perceptual forms. A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology.
[4] Miller, G. A. (1956). “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information”. Psychological Review 63 (2): 81–97. doi:10.1037/h0043158.PMID 13310704.