The point of visual design is to communicate. You have a message you want to convey to your audience and your design should take part in that communication. Not only do you want your visitors to receive your message, you want them to understand and remember it. Fortunately we have some principles at our disposal to help our readers comprehend our message and recall it later.
We’ll talk about 3 of those principles here and how they can help you better communicate with your audience.
- depth of processing
- von Restorff effect
Depth of Processing
Imagine two groups of people are given a list of words. The first group is asked to read the words while the second is asked to read the words, look up the definition of each, and use them all in a sentence. A few hours later both groups are asked to recall each of the words on the list. Which group do you think will be able to remember more of the words?
You can probably guess it would be the second group with the greater recall and the reason is they processed the information on a deeper level than the first group.
Depth of processing is the idea that information that is analyzed deeply is better understood and recalled than information that is analyzed superficially.
How We Process Information
There are two ways in which we process information known as maintenance rehearsal and elaborative rehearsal.
- Maintenance rehearsal repeats the same kind of analysis that has previously been carried out. It’s repeating a phone number back to yourself a few times in order to remember it later. No additional analysis is performed.
- Elaborative rehearsal is a deeper and more meaningful analysis of the information. It’s reading a passage of text and then being asked to answer questions about what you just read. In order to answer the questions you must take a deeper look at the information read and that deeper look leads to greater comprehension and recall.
Typically elaborative rehearsal shows 2 – 3 times improvement in the recall of information.
The above should be fairly obvious. The real question for us as designers is how to do we get our audience to more deeply analyze our message. How do we get them to put in the time and effort to understand and remember what we want to communicate.
Keys to Deeper Processing
There are three keys to depth of processing:
- Distinctiveness of the information – The more unique information is in relation to the surrounding information and the past experience of the reader, the more likely the information will be processed deeply
- Relevance of the information – The more relevant or important the information is to the reader the more likely they will spend time processing the information
- Degree to which the information is elaborated – The more thought that is required to interpret and understand the information the more deeply it will be analyzed
What the above tells us is we should strive to engage our readers by giving them unique presentations and offering interesting activities. Give them incentives to think about the information you’re giving them. Don’t leave your audience in a passive mode. If your aim is to teach something new, provide a quiz at the end of the lesson. Ask questions of your readers so they contemplate your message after they finishing reading.
Make the information more relevant to your readers. Talk about them more and you less. Let your audience know how the information applies to their lives and better how it will improve their lives. Use case studies to show how your ideas have helped others in similar situations.
Communicate your core message early on the page and progressively add more details further down the page. Make it clear to your visitors what your content is about right away to spur interest.
Also use a variety of media types. Add video or audio to reinforce your copy. Use images. Create a slideshow presentation. The more ways you can communicate your ideas, the more ways your visitors will think about those ideas.
As a side note keep the above ideas in mind when you’re attempting to learn something yourself. A quick scan of an article isn’t going to help you understand something as well as working your way through a book. Instead of copying and pasting someone’s code, spend some time understanding why it works.
von Restorff Effect
The von Restorff effect tells us that things that stand out and are noticeably different are remembered more. It’s an effect of the increased attention paid to something noticeably unfamiliar. Consider the short list of words below.
The above is an example of difference in context. By being styled in red the word “four” is set apart and likely gets noticed more and consequently remembered more from the list of words. Granted in this case the words would all be easy enough to recall later, but imagine a longer list without such a simple pattern.
With lists people often remember the first few and last few items more so you might want to style items in the middle somewhat differently to make them more memorable as well.
You have to be careful though as the von Restorff effect can work too well de-emphasizing attention and recall to other elements.
Difference in experience is another way to make things noticeably different. Anything atypical from previous experience stands out. It’s why we often remember our first day at a new school or job, but not the second or third day. It’s why we remember significant events in our lives, but forget what we had for dinner earlier in the week.
Do keep in mind the idea that noticeably different gets more attention and more recall. If every brand in your niche uses a blue dominant color scheme, then making your color scheme red dominant will stand out. You’ll likely be remembered more than were you to also use a blue dominant scheme.
In writing try an unusual word or sentence construction. Don’t force words and sentences or make them needless complex, but try something different enough to attract attention at times. Offer a different presentation than is typical. Use images to stand apart from your text. If everyone in your niche is offering text only, try adding a video. If video is commonplace, try audio or an interactive game.
If we expand the idea it may be argued that custom design work is better than themes or templates. At the very least customize your theme and template so as not to look the same as everyone else.
Use contrast and emphasis for more important design elements. Bold key words and phrases, use a different color for important information, make a important paragraphs bigger. Do something noticeably different so the most important elements in your design grab attention and are remembered.
Which set of 9 numbers below do you think would be easier to remember?
698 — 356 — 280
The second group should help you remember the numbers better. It’s an example of chunking, a principle where many items are combined into limited groups or chunks of less items each in order to make the items easier to process and remember. Three to five chunks usually work best.
It’s important to keep in mind that this principle is limited to tasks involving memory, particularly short-term memory. There’s no need to chunk reference-related information such as what’s found in a dictionary. If anything chunking could make it more difficult to process reference information as it makes it more difficult and time consuming to scan for any single item.
Chunking is sometimes misapplied in visual design. It can make things harder to scan since the focus is on the group of items and not the individual items themselves. However if you apply the concept in combination with other principles it can be used effectively to make documents easier to process.
Using the principle of proximity to group related items won’t make the individual items easier to scan, but if you combine that with a contrasting heading for each group and organize the information into a hierarchy, then your readers can quickly scan the headings to find the group they want and then quickly scan the items in that group.
In writing use several shorter paragraphs (chunks) instead of one longer paragraph. Provide transitions between chunks and organize them into a clearly labeled hierarchy. Link chunks together to form meaningful units of information.
Don’t use chunking alone to help with scanning and searching information, but do use it where it can be an aid to short-term recall, and combine chunking with other ideas such as organizational hierarchies, proximity, and contrast to make information more understandable and easier to process and recall.
It’s not enough to get someone to visit your site or page if they don’t understand what you’re trying to tell them or can’t remember it or you later. As web designer’s it’s our job to communicate. If a reader doesn’t get your message, the fault is yours and not theirs.
Ideally your audience will take the time and put in the effort to deeply process your prose or notice the important design elements on your page. However, don’t place the burden for doing so on them. Make it easy for your readers to absorb and recall your message.
Use the von Restorff effect to call attention to important design elements and concepts you want to communicate. Chunk information that might be hard to recall and combine chunking with other design principles to better organize your design. Take steps to give incentives for your visitors to process your information more deeply. Get them to analyze your message beyond a quick glance.
The more you can bring attention to important ideas and concepts, the more easily you can make it for people to process those concepts, and the more you get your audience to analyze those concepts at a deeper level, the more you will communicate to them and the more they’ll remember your message later.
Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.