When processing a visual field (what we are looking at), the brain can only focus on one area at a given time. That’s how the eyes work: a small field of view for detailed high-definition viewing is surrounded by a wide, low-resolution field of view. The eyes make a series of rapid movements so that the brain can process what it sees.
Nevertheless, if we can identify details one at a time, there must be a very quick and automatic way of prioritizing — understanding what to look at first. If we didn’t give importance to specific objects and our gaze remained completely neutral, we would always start from the upper left corner, moving along and going down a little lower, along again, and so on. But we don’t use that way. On the contrary, in the course of evolution, our brain has learned to prioritize moving objects or objects that stand out among their surroundings. If an object is moving – it may threaten us. If something stands out – it’s interesting or maybe we’ve found something new. Again, it could be a threat or a bright berry against a background of leaves. These features shaped the brains of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Brain processing systems
Our brain’s visual system is well studied and widely used in modeling processes to attract people’s attention. As visual information from our eyes goes directly to the brain, two systems of processing occur in parallel.
Automatic processing, common to all humans, occurs when we see a design.
Our brain first identifies a set of visual elements: colors, contours, contrast, light, motion, and textures of an object. And before the brain knows what we are seeing, basic visual features must be deciphered for our awareness. This process must take place quickly enough for us to detect threats (such as a predator) or opportunities (such as a prey or an interesting thing).
Analytical processing is influenced by memory, expectations, and search goals (context).
Here we begin to identify what we think we see – a face, a car, a human figure. The earlier this information is processed, the sooner we can classify the object. This helps with the recognition of raw visual elements.
It is difficult for us to immediately determine what we are seeing: the brain perceives a series of lines, colors, and shapes, but how do they fit together? If the brain collects the initial fragments of information – outlines of shape, texture, and so on – as a result of its analytical processing, it will find it easier to put the puzzle together with the overall picture. In other words, the analytic and automatic processes are in constant interaction, necessary to decipher the raw information using the basic processes.
An interesting fact about our unconscious is that it confuses familiar things with those that are easy to process. The ease of perceiving a simple image for it is identical to the perception of a familiar image. The faces of people we know are easy to process because we have seen them before. If we encounter something new and the processing is easy for us, the subconscious determines it as a familiar object, and we feel sympathy. Usually this feeling is not strong enough and does not make a lasting impression, so we do not focus our attention on it and easily forget about it. The stability and reliability of this effect “works” best with prolonged exposure.
If we focus on finding something we already know (for example, we know the color and shape of our favorite supermarket brand product), we visually suppress objects that don’t fit the criteria.
Speaking of the design system that works in this way, minimalism is the search for the simplest, least energy-intensive solutions to convey information and explain its task. We also find this in living nature.
Any system – from plants and reservoirs to our lungs – develops according to the principle of energy movement with the least resistance. This explains the way nature creates geometric and structured patterns. Systems have to face the pressure of external energy, which pushes design to perfection. The design of living nature is related to physics – they are based on similar processes. That’s why we see similar patterns in different types of systems.
Even unconsciously we feel a certain geometric structure of the image. It would seem that the viewer should not look for hidden geometry in the drawing, the image should be perceived “as is. Nevertheless, the unconscious mind, at its own pace, can begin to explore the hidden picture.
Something different from the background is “visually meaningful. Our brain can create what are called visual maps. It constantly processes colors, contours, hues, degrees of light, etc., then these elements are combined, and our visual system, guided by this map, looks for areas that are different from the surroundings. Perhaps they are moving, their color contrasts with other areas, or they look brighter. The visual system then tells the eyes what to look at in order to focus on that area and see it in detail, i.e., visually significant elements are looked at earlier, more frequently, and longer.
The analytic processing described earlier can affect our map if we recognize an object as interesting (e.g., a face or food). If an object’s visual function is at a lower level, it may be almost indistinguishable from its surroundings, but if we are interested in it, we will still notice it. Also, if we are looking for something, such as a can of Coke in the supermarket, our analytical processes will send signals to the automatic information processing system to activate sensitivity to the object’s features, such as the color red. Finally, the analytical processes encapsulate expectations about the types of things we might see in any environment. If an object looks “out of place” simply because we don’t expect to see it, it can become salient.
A good visual hierarchy allows us to guide the user’s gaze, helping us to figure out intuitively what to look at and in what order to look at it. Visual hierarchies can be constructed based on our intuitive understanding of the importance of an object’s size and location. For example, larger design elements intuitively seem more important. But this is not always the case.
A certain context can provoke the user to discover a particular design element more quickly. Priming is an effect from psychology that explains our mental ability to discover things around us that are associated with us. For example, if you buy a new car or a new bag, you are more likely to notice the same bag from other people and you won’t leave a car of the same brand unnoticed. This happens because we become aware of our associations.
Similar to the object familiarity effect, there is the notion of the choice familiarity effect: if the consumer focuses his gaze on one product while ignoring (or visually suppressing) others, he will buy that very product.
Typically, the shopper in the supermarket is often distracted, in a hurry, and the more he looks at a particular product, the more likely, his choice is. This effect is not related to customers’ own preferences or the attractiveness of the design in an aesthetic sense. We usually don’t have time to look at every product for an equal amount of time, so we rely on visual relevance maps.
If consumers make quick choices or are distracted, they are more likely to prefer an object that is visually more meaningful. But also more prominent packaging can make a difference, even if the customer is not in a hurry. To be noticed among competitors, the design must stand out or draw attention to its specific elements. It can also be improved with the effect of visual significance.
Increasing visual relevance will not solve all the problems of a design, but it will help to "assemble" it, increase its integrity. For example, if the design has too many meaningful elements that are far apart, the image will look too confusing and complicated, and viewers may not understand where and what they should be looking for. It is better to have fewer meaningful areas in the design that will actually make it easier to navigate.
Design elements can have high or low visual relevance, but it depends on the environment – the context. For example, a bright red package design will not appear on the visual significance map if the product lies among other products in red packaging. Red can often be attractive, but that effect is weakened if the product is amongst its own kind.
For this reason, using a bright moving or unusual design does not mean that it will necessarily become noticeable. It all depends on the consumer’s visual relevance maps. However, if you identify and consider the context and goals of the user (i.e., the interests of the audience you want), the visual significance of the design can be a powerful and useful concept that convinces the consumer to choose.
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