THE SCIENCE OF VISUALS

THE SCIENCE OF VISUALS

By Jon Puleston, Vice President of Innovation. Lightspeed

This is a summary of an extensive series of experiments conducted in a unique collaboration between Lightspeed and the Digital Graphic Agency to explore the role of visuals in the gathering and delivery of research data. Between them they conducted over 70 experiments, testing over 500 visuals, icons, charts, presentation and infographics on 10,000+ respondents in five countries.

Visuals work!

The main findings of this research is that visuals really do work. Facts presented together with visuals can be anywhere up to twice a memorable as those same facts presented without.

The question really is, why? In our research we began to deconstruct how visuals work, breaking down every element of the communication process. Testing how quickly visuals were processed compared to text, the curiosity they generated, and how they motivated people to consume and share the facts. This is a summary of the most important learnings:

The human brain thinks in pictures:
Our brains are designed to process imagery and we can do it incredibly quickly. In our experiments we flashed visual material for fractions of a second to consumers, testing hundreds of icons and logos. We found the images could be processed at least twice as fast as the words used to describe them and many logos upwards of four times faster.


As a result we are more likely to take notice of visual information than text based facts because our brains derive meaning from it more efficiently. So if we are searching for information, a relevant visual helps navigate us towards it more quickly.

When designing icons, the more “literal” your visual, the better
In order for visuals to be effective in their iconic form, i.e. when they are being used to signpost information, they have to be very accurate – literally “iconic” – and they have to be descriptive yet without any superfluous detail. We found simple one or two colour designed icons are selected far faster than the full colour, more detailed icons. Colour and detail can slow down processing information as our brains are distracted, looking for meaning in all the erroneous visual detail.

A balance is necessary between visual simplicity and descriptive detail
Whist too much colour detail could make icons difficult to process efficiently, detail is nevertheless often important especially in a research context. Too little visual detail and you run the risk that the icon will misrepresent what it’s trying to convey. There’s a balance to be maintained between visual simplicity and descriptive detail.

Visuals that “sell” their information need to work differently
Visuals also have another role, to “sell” the information. To do that they must, stand out, provoke our curiosity. Visuals are the gatekeeper to engaging the conscious brain.

The problem with literal visuals is that they are not normally very effective at this. visuals that catch the attention or provoke curiosity are different. Here, juxtaposition and lack of immediate clarity can be an advantage. Take this example of two visuals used to “advertise” a fact about the top speed of a supermarket trolley.


The visual of racing car is a very literal interpretation of the construct of speed its meaning is instantly apparent. In contrast, the second image of a person perched on a trolley require some deciphering, and in doing so, provokes curiosity. The only way you will find out what the curious looking visual means is by reading the fact. Consequently in post-exposure fact recall tests, 40% more people recalled this piece of information.

Building metaphoric associations improves recall
We found visuals making metaphoric associations help us to remember factual information most efficiently. The example below shows the effect. Quantifying the number of broken trolleys as “two Wembley stadiums” doubles the recall of this fact, but visualising this analogy trebled the fact’s memorability.

We use mental heuristics to process visuals
It might be a cliché, but we are 20% more likely to take notice of images with human beings in them. This is an example of one of the types of short-cuts our brain takes to decide if a visual is interesting or not. “A human is looking at me!” – we are primevally programmed to react to this.

The primary decision-making heuristic: is it new or different?
Human brains are programmed to be alert for differences in order to survive, to spot opportunities/threats. Our brains are on the lookout for things that are different, juxtaposed, or unexpected.We conducted a number of experiments where we would, show people the first half of a page of factual information and asked them if they were curious to read more. In nearly every case the using visuals increased the curiosity to read by on average of 40% and we found the more the unusual use of visuals the greater the curiosity to consume.

We mentally amass more facts from a visualised presentation
When presented with lots of facts in one presentation it becomes difficult to store them all in our memory. It’s clear that visuals really can help us to amass information more efficiently too. We compared the net recall of facts from a visualised and non-visualised version and found up to 40% more facts overall being retained.

Good visuals have a halo effect
Good visual can also motivating people to read and remember other content surrounding it. In the example below the only difference in these pages of infographic information is the choice of chart. The more attention-grabbing polar area chart made the associated fact about the number of trolleys stolen significantly more memorable.

Visual information overload can detract from memorability of content
There is a saturation point though where visual information reaches overload, where the visual elements start to detract from the memorability of the content. The examples below show this. We tested 4 versions of the same page of factual information, increasing the level of visual elements in each. A point is reached where the visual elements start to detract from the memorability of the content.

People use variation in design as a signpost to identify interesting things. When we use very little variation, we observed much lower recall of the content. As variation is introduced, more information gets recalled. There is a point, however, where variance becomes the norm: everything is different. In this scenario we cannot work out what should be prioritised in our memory. So be warned, with increasing variation comes diminishing returns.

Making information shareable
The final part of the story of visuals is the role they have in making people want to share information. And once more we found that visuals work, we found visualised information to be up to twice as shareable as non-visualised.

In summary

When all factors are combined, the fact that we process visual information faster, visual help advertise information, motivate us to consume information, help us to recall information and encourage us to share information all creates a multiplier effect.

When you consider some of the uplift figures from our research, the maths speaks for itself. Take a typical visual that gets pre-attentively processed twice as fast, provokes 50% more curiosity to read, encourages 50% more reading, results in 50% more facts being recalled, and is shared 50% more = a well visualised fact has the potential to be 10 times more impactful than an un-visualised fact!

Click here to request a quote from Lightspeed.