What Visual Impression Can You Convey In An Instant?

People begin forming judgements about you, your site, your business in an instant. Canadian researches at Carleton University suggested that within 50 ms (1/20th of a second) visitors to your site are making judgements about its visual appeal.

How much can you communicate in 50ms?

That’s what Scrivs wanted to know when earlier this week he asked What Impression Can You Leave in One Second?. His question arose after watching the video below, which is a montage of one second clips.

The video is just over a minute long and if you watch it you’ll no doubt form immediate impressions about some of the clips. What are those impressions? How was the impression communicated? At what level is that impression affecting you?

What Can You Communicate in a Second?

In one second visitors haven’t read your copy or explored the entirely of your navigation. Most of what you’ll communicate in that short time frame will be communicated visually.

There’s a chance to communicate a single word or short phrase, but even that is still processed visually as opposed to intellectually.

Scrivs asked if we should change how we approach design knowing we only have a second to communicate. I’m not sure if it’s really about changing our approach so much as it is in understanding how our designs are being seen.

We need to do what we can to consciously communicate something in those initial milliseconds, because we will be communicating something and that communication is best not left to chance.

For example in 20ms:

  • visitors aren’t going to decide if the entirety of your color scheme works or not, but they can quickly decide if it feels warm or cold, bright or dark, fun or businesslike.
  • visitors won’t be able to follow your grid from one design element to the next, but they can feel the organization of a grid or the spontaneity of the lack of one.

I think the way we communicate instantly is to develop a concept and be consistent with our design elements so they all work in harmony with that concept.

Think of the most important messages you want your design to convey and then with every design choice ask yourself how that choice reflects those most important messages.

Say your client’s brand is about elegance and luxury. Your one second design goal is to communicate those two concepts.

  • What colors would you use?
  • Would you opt for a more informationally dense design or one featuring more whitespace?
  • What kind of imagery would you include?

Compare the 2 images below from the inside Apple stores with the 2 images further down of inside of 2 Best Buy stores. Look at the layout, the colors used, the furniture, the space.

Take each in at a glance and think about the different impressions they leave and what those impressions communicate about the stores, the products they sell, and the businesses behind them.

Apple Store interiors

Apple Store interior Apple Store interior

Additional Resources

I’ve written about this subject a number of times and from different angles and I’ll point you to those posts to help you answer the question of how you can communicate a message in a seemingly instantaneous time frame.

The 3 posts below talk about the ideas of developing a concept and creating unity or harmony in your design.

The posts below discuss how initial impressions influence what comes after.

The following 3 posts deal more in theory about how we all process information, both visually and verbally, and how prior experience influences our perception.

This last set of posts talks about attention, how to attract it, and why it’s important to gain the attention of your visitors.

Again I think the key is understanding what you’re trying to convey and then creating unity between your design elements so your message is communicated everywhere.

More than anything this unity is what will help deliver a consistent message that can be communicated through a quick visual impression.

Best Buy store interiors

Best Buy Store interior Best Buy Store interior


Always keep in mind that people are forming impressions and making judgements about your design from the instant they see it and that those initial impression affect how everything after is perceived.

Don’t try to communicate everything in an instant. You can’t. However, you should be able to communicate some feeling or idea in an instant and that’s mainly done through to the unity of your design.

Ask yourself what’s the most important idea or two that need to be conveyed and keep those ideas in mind throughout your design, from the overall aesthetic to the smallest design detail.

Think about how much you can communicate in an instant and how you might go about it.

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