In order to determine how to design effective visualizations, Harvard researchers recently asked “What makes a visualization memorable?” in what has become the “largest scale visualization study to date.”
Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, the researchers collected memorability scores for hundreds of visualizations chosen from news media sites and infographics and found consistencies in what people find memorable and forgettable over time.
Scientists now know that that our minds are much more capable of capturing visual data in a split second than was previously believed, and that we are able to identify and distinguish between those images and similar ones with extreme accuracy.
Thus, memorability alone could enhance an infographic’s effectiveness.
The study’s participants viewed nearly 500 images and reported when they saw a duplicate. Attributes like color or the inclusion of a “human recognizable object” enhanced memorability, and common graphs were less memorable than unique visualization types.
The findings suggest that human recognizable objects are the most memorable visualizations. These images include photographs, people, cartoons, icons, body parts, logos or other familiar things that people come across on a daily basis.
Visualizations with more than six colors are more memorable than those with only a few colors, which is in direct contradiction to the commonly held notion that bad graphics result from “chart junk” (busy graphics packed with too much text, excessive ornamentation, gaudy colors and clip art).
Also contrary to what we might expect, clutter, or visual density, scores high on memorability in comparison to minimalist approaches.
Bar charts and graphs, on the other hand, look too much alike to distinguish between them with accuracy. Participants in the study thought they’d seen one already when they actually hadn’t. People tend to remember visualizations with more structural and layout variety than the bar graph format.
Unusual types of charts, like tree diagrams, network diagrams, and grid matrices, are more memorable than bar graphs and charts. And round or curvy lines are more aesthetically pleasing than linear elements.
Still, a memorable visualization is not necessarily a good visualization.
Knowing what makes a visualization memorable, however, is a step towards answering higher level questions like “What makes a visualization engaging?” or “What makes a visualization effective?”
More research is needed to determine which visualizations go beyond simple recognition to memory retention. In that sense, busier design elements might actually have a negative correlation.
In the meantime, and as far as infographic charts and diagrams go, one thing to keep in mind is what author Nigel Holmes states in his “Designer’s Guide to Creating Charts and Diagrams”:
“As long as the artist understands that the primary function is to convey statistics and respects that duty, then you can have fun (or be serious) with the image; that is, the form in which these statistics appear.”
Be sure to check out Visual.ly’s top 20 Infographics of 2013 and the memorable design projects below that use human recognizable objects.
“All Eyes On You” by Britzpetermann
“All Eyes on You”, a moving window display by Britzpetermann, Bonn, Germany. (View video)
“Hand Made Type” by Tien-Min Liao
“Hand Made Type” by Taiwanese designer and illustrator Tien-Min Liao. (View video)