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Information Design: When A Picture Is NOT Worth a Thousand Words

The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” holds a profound reason. Let’s delve into it. A standard letter-size page typically accommodates 250-300 words, requiring 2-3 minutes for reading. Consequently, 1000 words span 4 pages, demanding 8 to 12 minutes of reading time. This stands in stark contrast to the swift glance at a picture. Neuroscientists highlight that mere milliseconds are needed for visual information processing, emphasizing the efficiency of visual communication.


In numerical terms, it’s approximately 1 second versus 720 seconds, showcasing a staggering minimum speed difference of 720 times. This stark contrast underscores the remarkable efficiency of processing visual information compared to reading text.


The saying’s significance lies in highlighting the speed of visual information processing. A corollary to that is instant understanding. Not only do we see what we see, we also equally fast understand the meaning of what we see. This insight underscores that an effective information designer should align their designs with this principle. The speed of processing sets a crucial standard that should never be compromised or lowered in the pursuit of clear and efficient communication.


Here are a couple of ways in which the pursuit of visually distinct and more interesting or unusual design can violate the principle of fast information processing.


  1. Unclear Hierarchy: Graphics lacking a well-defined visual hierarchy can bewilder the audience, hindering immediate understanding and challenging the principle of efficient visual communication. For instance, choosing to depict numerical comparisons with whole circles instead of bar or pie charts can create ambiguity. Unlike bars and pies that offer distinct hierarchies through clear size and proportion comparisons, circles lack this inherent structure. Observers can only ascertain that one circle is larger than another, while determining if one is twice as big necessitates mental computations, introducing delays in comprehension.
  2. Cluttered Design: Overcrowded layouts featuring an abundance of visuals or competing elements can impede the viewer’s swift processing of information, challenging the principle of maintaining a high processing speed. For instance, the common practice of incorporating numerous cards, each displaying single large numbers representing specific KPIs, can hinder comprehension. The brain is adept at making correlations for up to three elements, so presenting an excess of numbers might appear precise but creates a cognitive bottleneck. There is a reason why car dashboards have just 2 or 3 big dials. 
  3. Inconsistent Symbols: The improper or inconsistent use of symbols, icons, and colors can introduce ambiguity, impeding the interpretation process and contradicting the principle of instant understanding. For instance, if category colors lack correlation across visuals, France sales might be represented as a green bar on one chart and a red pie on another, causing confusion. Additionally, while using cute icons to represent people or processes in tables may seem charming, they impose a curiosity or memory tax on the brain, making bare numbers a more efficient choice.


When it comes to visual information processing, efficiency surpasses embellishments. Therefore, adhering to simpler designs and visual representations is preferable. It’s akin to X, the former Twitter, sticking to 140 characters for optimal efficiency.

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Dr. Rado

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