5 Myths Of Visual Communication

in Visual Design

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Visual communication is a tricky endeavor, because it involves a language that is only partially understood as well as mysterious and complex brain processes. We have a lot of ideas about how visual communication works, but some are assumptions based on intuition, misinformation or lack of it. Here are a few.

Myth 1: People spend more time reading when type is large.

A surprising finding came out of a user eye tracking study of 25 news sites. It showed that on the homepage (at least in a newsy environment), people did LESS reading and more skimming when they encountered large type. Researchers found that smaller type encouraged people to actually focus and read the words, while larger type, such as that used in headlines, encouraged people to scan for informative words and phrases that might be of interest. Note: This finding should not discourage the use of large type for increased accessibility purposes.  (Poynter Institute et. al., 2004)

UK's Guardian with headlines and small type

Myth 2: The larger the image, the more attention it attracts.

There’s no question that we’re attracted to the large images in a web page. But in a study of the web page behavior of people aged 18-31 years, a particular type of smaller image overpowered the magnetic draw of the larger ones. These were photos of celebrities, defined as people who are generally recognized by the public. In the experiment, subjects fixated on the small photos of celebrities, like Steve Jobs, for longer periods of time than on the larger main image of the page. So content of the image is an important consideration.  (Djamasbi, et. al., 2010)

FastCompany homepage with small "celebrity" photo

Myth 3: Realism is best when you’re explaining things.

You might think that a realistic representation is the best approach for a visual explanation. But research shows that reducing realism is often more effective. This is particularly true when the visual explanation is for a general audience, rather than specialists in a domain. Streamlining visual content into a simpler representation provides a way for viewers to quickly perceive and comprehend it. In addition, it reduces the number of visual cues, so viewers know where to focus. The example below clearly depicts how knit fabric is constructed. Not that you ever cared, but perhaps someone somewhere does.

Simplified illustration of a knit fabric

Myth 4: To show changes over time, it’s best to animate.

Do you think animation can save the world? Or at least that animation is the media of choice for showing changes over time? Interestingly, multiple experiments disprove this idea. Although it is somewhat controversial, researchers have failed to consistently prove that animation is more beneficial to comprehension than still diagrams depicting similar content. Often, animations go by too quickly, and without user controls, viewers might not have a chance to process the information at the animation’s speed. In addition, events in the world are often understood as a sequence of discrete steps. So a sequence of stills might be a better cognitive match. (Tversky, 2005)

Myth 5: People are not generally aware of typeface.

Although non-designers may not know the  difference between modern serif and slab serif, they are very aware of the suitability of a typeface for a particular use. In one study, participants demonstrated strong opinions about the appropriateness of the match between a typeface and a text passage. For example, they knew when a “serious” typeface was appropriate for a serious text passage. They were also cognizant of dissonance between typeface and the passage. Bottom line: Everyone is watching, so choose your matches and non-matches carefully. (Brumberger, 2003)

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