Monday, November 23, 2015

Thinking like a designer: using memory to focus attention

Earlier this week I blogged about how I used Keri-Lee Beasley's CARP videos to help students understand design principles when they communicate using posters and presentations.  I've also read further in Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic's book Storytelling with Data to consider how to focus the attention of your audience so that we are in control of how they interact with our visual communications.

Cole explains that we see with our brains - in particular as a designer we need to think about the different types of memory and how we can utilise it as we communicate:
  • Iconic memory - information stays here for just a fraction of a second and mostly we are not even conscious of it.  However this memory evolved as a survival mechanism to pick up differences in our environment. Tapping into the iconic memory can certainly be used for effective visual communication.  This memory is the one that reacts to the Contrast part of the CARP model (here known as preattentive attributes) - making sure the important data contrasts with the rest is one way of ensuring our audience's attention is drawn to what we want them to see.
  • Short-term memory - here it's important to be aware that people can only keep about 4 chunks of visual information in their short-term memory simultaneously.  This is one reason why we shouldn't have multiple symbols, colours and so on as we try to communicate a message.
  • Long-term memory - once something leaves the short-term memory it either vanishes completely or it moves into long-term memory.  We know that images often stick with an audience, therefore combining a visual with a verbal message will be an effective way to trigger long-term memory in our audience.
We only have around 3-8 seconds with an audience before they decide to continue looking or focus their attention somewhere else.  Therefore we need to create a visual hierarchy so that the audience pays attention to what is most important first.  Preattentive attributes, such as colour, size, shape and position means that the audience doesn't have to work hard to process all the information, but instead is guided through the visual in order of what is most important.

Photo Credit: utpal. via Compfight cc

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