Tuesday 20 February 2018

Friday Five: The Science Behind Visual Storytelling

We know visual storytelling is important but do we understand why? Aside from our ever-diminishing attention spans, the human brain processes images and color in specific ways. You don’t need to be a designer or an artist to read or think visually because evolution programmed us this way.

Based on the Gestalt Principles and Color Theory, below are five “laws” to consider when developing a visual narrative.

1. Figure and Ground

This principle refers to how we organize objects in terms of foreground and background. Our mind identifies the predominant object in an image based on how clearly it is defined (figure), while the surrounding area is perceived as background.

You can play with figure and ground to create compelling and unusual images. The most famous examples are by artist M.C. Escher who experimented with figure and ground to create intricate images.

2. Keep it Simple

Also known as the Law of Prägnanz, our minds have a tendency to order complex things in terms of order, symmetry and simplicity. We do this instantaneously without even thinking about it.

In terms of symmetry our minds perceive objects as being symmetrical and forming around a center point. When we look at the below brackets we tend to observe three pairs of brackets versus six individual brackets:

As for simplicity, the Olympic Games logo is a good example. We see the logo as having a series of circles versus many complicated shapes due to them overlapping.

3. Similarity and Proximity

The human brain has a tendency to see groups with similar characteristics such as shape, size, color and texture as belonging together. For example, the triangles in the below image forms a larger triangle.

The use of similarity can be done intentionally to create a visual narrative but be sure to review your materials to ensure that placement of visual cues do not confuse the reader due to their similarity.

As with objects that are similar in nature, proximity plays an important role in how humans decode visual images. Things that are closer together will be perceived as belonging together.

4. Closure

Closure is when your mind instantly completes figures even when part of the information is missing. A great example of this is the WWF logo of the panda. You don’t need a fully outlined panda to know what it is.

Another example of closure and where the mind doesn’t need additional information to complete the image was created by Aaron Koblin. His animated data visualization of flight patterns makes it explicit which country is shown.


5. Color is Not Naturally Ordered

Something that cannot be ignored in terms of visual storytelling and human perception is color. In Julie Steele and Noah Iliinsky’s  book on data visualization, they identify the common mistake of using color as a means to order or rank things. Color is not naturally ordered in our brains the same way that numbers are. Blue does not come before red but four always follows three.

To avoid falling into this trap, consider varying the brightness or saturation of a single hue to highlight order or hierarchy. For example, the darker a hue the more emphasis it receives. This technique is used in maps that include population data where the densest locations tend to be darker in hue.

Second, color has cultural implications and should always be considered depending on your audience.

We know visual storytelling is important, but when you have science on your side, it’s hard to ignore. How will you adapt the Gestalt Principles to your brands’ visual storytelling?

Image credit: get down

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  • Memorable, simple points to incorporate into design. Thanks, Brittany Dave!

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