The Visual Mind: Why Diagrams Work

By Liza Mock on Nov 14, 2017 in Visual thinking

If content is king, then that makes visual content an emperor wearing his full regalia. Compared to text, visual content is an extremely effective way to communicate because our brains do a great job of processing it. Of all our senses, 90% of the information sent to the brain is visual.

We're hardwired to thrive on visual content. Think about it. Long before we had letters, words and sentences, we communicated with drawings. The Lascaux drawings found in caves in France date back some 17,000 years. These images depict people and large animals from that time. They're proof that “drawings have been a universally powerful method of communication” for years.

From there, communication evolved to include ideograms — visual symbols that represent a thought or an idea. We still use this type of communication today. The signs you see on roads, shopping centers and other public spaces are examples.

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Our communication evolved over time, but vision is our main source of understanding the world around us. As long as the eyes are open, the visual cortex constantly pulls in information and sends it to different parts of the brain to be stored and recalled when needed.

This is why people respond more positively to visuals than text heavy content. Research shows that content with a visual element results in 94% more views. To boost retention and engagement, use diagrams to help explain things like processes and strategies.

The science of the visual mind

Diagrams work because of the speed people process the information. When someone sees a piece of information for the first time, it takes a mere 13 milliseconds for the brain to identify the image the eyes are seeing. It takes another 100 milliseconds for the brain to begin to process the information. It does this by drawing from information and experiences already stored deep within. Next, the pre-frontal cortex kicks in to help the brain decide whether it'll pay attention or tune out the information. All of these functions and decisions literally happen in the blink of an eye.

Research has found that the best way to capture and hold a person's attention is to use contrasting graphics and images. It helps influence where people focus and what catches their eye. That's why design is so important. Because people retain 80% of what they see, they can form associations and understand information better. Compare this to people retaining 20% of what they read and 10% of what they hear.

Specifically, 70% of sensory receptors are in the eyes. Meaning, unlike our other senses, our eyes are constantly processing information.

Think about when you're watching TV and flipping through channels. You probably only spend a few seconds on one channel before deciding to move on. The reason is the brain can recognize and process images 60,000X faster than text. Our brains search for patterns in the things we see and draws from experience to instantly tell us what we're seeing.

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If you were flipping through channels with nothing but text on the screen, it would take a lot longer to read, process and interpret the message vs. seeing the same thing as an image.

The process speed is why 65% of people consider themselves visual learners. For example, you may have noticed the widespread use of infographics as a way to explain processes and offer high-level summaries of dense information.

Once upon a time social media was all about sending messages. Now, sites like Instagram and Snapchat are built primarily to share images.

Images and diagrams work because they're a “ great way to grab a viewer’s attention, convey a message, and elicit an emotional response.”

Optimizing content with visuals

Just because there's proof showing the power of visual content doesn't mean it's as simple as throwing together a diagram and calling it a day. There are a few factors to consider in order to see engagement.

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More specifically:

  • Make sure your diagrams are “visually consistent.” As a way to help us understand the world around us, our brains look for patterns and try to anticipate the conclusion. When you use consistent formatting (like shapes, lettering colors, etc), for example, it's easier to keep the reader engaged and clear on your logic.
  • Use graphics and diagrams to explain valuable information. If you've introduced a new product and want to make it easy for new users to understand, consider using a diagram to explain how the product works. Keep your documentation as a backup but to make people understand how to use the product, include a diagram. This approach caters to the more than two thirds of people who identify as visual learners.
  • Explain your point using as few words as possible. Our brains are built for stimulation but that doesn't mean you have to avoid simple diagrams. These diagrams don't have to say much because even through their simplicity they speak volumes. Too many words takes away from the purpose of communicating visually and makes it harder for people to remember what they've read.
  • Use animation to connect with people. The average attention span lasts a mere 8 seconds, but it only takes the brain a quarter of a second to process visual cues. Even though you don't have lots of time to hook people, think about all the information they can process in those 8 seconds. A short, animated diagram gives people a quick intro of what to expect.
  • Use your diagram to tell a story. That's why graphics need a logical flow because it makes them easy to understand and for people to understand what you're trying to tell them. Even with fewer words your message will come across clearly.

These best practices help you form a framework for building campaigns around diagrams that people notice and react to.

Diagrams done the right way

Let's look at a few examples of how these ideas have been used to create diagrams that people can pay attention to.

Visual consistency

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This diagram doesn't rely on a lot of words or features to explain a sample onboarding process. It takes what has the potential to be a complicated process and distills the most important information down to the bare essentials.

It's obvious what direction the information is supposed to flow in and is easy to follow. Note that you don't have to go overboard with colors to make a diagram engaging. It's true that people pay attention to images with color compared to black and white images but too many colors make you diagram distracting and harder to read.

To make your graphic easy to follow, lay out the main points in your process. Then for each one, write down the main takeaway. This forms the foundation of your diagram.

Explain valuable information

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As a document, the information in this diagram would probably be hard to digest. What works here is the organization of information. Each major task has been called out at the top of the diagram in bold text and defined by color blocks. Each section represents a step in the process with the details summarized within each one.

Use a few words

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Your diagrams don't need to have a lot of words to get your point across. Keep it simple and stick to the most important information.

Use animation

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Use an animated diagram to get people to stop and pay attention. Our eyes have rods and cones that work together to help us see details, color and movement. So animation works for the simple fact that our vision is wired to pick up on even tiny movements so we can see predators and prey. Realistically, we don't have to worry about this day-to-day but our biology still works much the same way it did years ago.

Tell a story

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This is an example of a project planning, launch and review model that walks readers through a process. The diagram starts the story by highlighting which groups are affected by the model and makes it clear what comes next in the story. It moves through stages — which are easy to identify because of the whitespace — and makes it clear how the process will flow.

Even though there isn't a lot of text on the diagram, it lays the process out well and the flow is very easy for readers to understand. To tell your story, think about the main points you want to focus on. These will create the steps that form the basis of your diagram.

Before you press send...

Think about the information you share and what you can do to make it more engaging. Our brains prefer visual content for three reasons:

  • It's more stimulating and easier to process. Get creative when you share diagrams and images because people are more likely to spend time looking at it and retain the information on it.
  • Our brain likes patterns. It's constantly trying to understand the information is receives so that we understand what we see. It's easier for the brain to do this when it's looking at an image vs. text.
  • We retain more information. Our brains are intricate databases that store all of the information we ever encounter. So when we see something new, we're able to draw from our information bank and make associations quickly.

So before you send a lengthy email, consider how visual we're becoming as a society. People expect to get information quickly so what better way to help with that than to turn to diagrams.

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