Infographics? Yes please, it’s how your brain works
Let’s start this article with a simple test: please answer the following question: “How many teeth does a enraged pit-bull have?”.
The answer: “A lot!!! Many more than any of us would ever want to know.”
As Steven Pinker points out on his book ‘How The Mind Works’, “Gossip is a favorite pastime in all human societies because knowledge is power.” (1)
Knowledge is power. Sometimes we can use this power over other people, other times we will use it for ourselves, making sure we follow the best decisions in life. This is a basic for human survival.
Back to the pit-bull test. Imagine now that I would tell you the story (gossip) of the man who faced an enraged pit-bull and was bitten badly by the animal. From my narrative, you will get new knowledge and, with it, the power over other people and over your future decisions. If you need to choose a dog to guard your property, you’ll use a pit-bull. On the other hand, next time you face a pit-bull, you’ll be at your most attentive self, since these animals do have a lot of teeth when enraged.
This pit-bull story, I’ve just told you, provides you with a simulation of life, one that you didn’t have to live yourself in order to learn it (more about that later).
Torben Grodal, in his book “Embodied Visions”, talks about the advantage of these life simulations: “The ability to learn by simulation is central to our cognition. Indeed, simulation is a two-way street: as cognitive learning theories have pointed out, we watch other people not only in order to learn how and why they behave as they do, but also to learn how to behave ourselves.” (2)
Another well known principle is that the best way for us to learn is by example. For instance, instead of being told how to assemble an IKEA shelf, we are showed how to do it, step by step – in what I consider to be one of the best infographic example in the world: the IKEA manuals.
Lisa Cron’s amazing book about storytelling and brain science, ‘Wired for Story’, provides us with a very special lesson about storytelling and, might I add, about infographics: “Myth: ‘show, don’t tell’ is literal – don’t tell me John is sad, show him crying. Reality: ‘show, don’t tell’ is figurative – don’t tell me John is sad, show me why he’s sad”. She adds: “What “show” almost always means is, let’s see the event itself unfold” (3)
What Lisa is advising – in her case for future fiction novel writers – is another well known infographics principle: it’s always better to show how something works than it is to describe how it works. This has been an old mantra for infographics: “show, don’t tell”. Lisa quotes two renowned scientists to help us understand better this mantra: “As Antonio Damasio says, “The entire fabric of a conscious mind is created from the same cloth—images.”(4) (…) Neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran agrees: “Humans excel at visual imagery. Our brains evolved this ability to create an internal mental picture or model of the world in which we can rehearse forthcoming actions, without the risks or penalties of doing them in the real world. (5)””
It’s this visual side of our brain and it’s ability to create simulations using pictures, that makes infographics such a good communication tool. Both your brain and infographics ‘speak’ the same language.
Eric Kandel, on his book “The Age of Insight”, helps us learn more about this ‘visual’ common ground, between our minds and visual representations of information: “We are intensely visual creatures, and we live in a world that is largely oriented to sight. We search for a mate, food, drink, and companionship using information provided by the retina. In fact, fully half of the sensory information going to the brain is visual.” (6)
Not only do we identify most of the world around us using visual inputs, we can visualize in our minds objects that are not there for our eyes to see. With all of this visual information coming to our brains, we must be able to store visual information inside our minds. Even when we read a text, each word will be analyzed against our mind’s visual library to retrieve it’s meaning.
In that order, we usually speak about ‘seeing’ images inside our minds because the experience of visual mental imagery is in many ways like that of visual perception (“Wet Mind” by Stephen M. Kosslyn and Olivier Koenig (7)).
Furthermore, information without context is nothing. Visual information often provides powerful clues for context in a quick and easy way for the brain to compute it. An infographic should always excel at this quest to provide visual information and to provide context to that information; in order to “(…) knowing the context directs attention to the location of key information and also greatly constrains the alternative guesses one might make” (Kosslyn and Koenig (7)).
In the end, what our every infographic communication effort should seek is to, as Lisa Cron puts it: “We’re hardwired to love problem solving; when we figure something out, the brain releases an intoxicating rush of neurotransmitters that say, “Good job!” (3)
It’s this neurotransmitters release that we want to provide our audiences with, whenever they see one of our infographics and retrieve its information.
How does our visual brain work?
Remember the pit-bull test? Let’s do another one, a little bit harder this time:
It’s summer and you’re going on holiday taking the family on a road trip. Before hitting the road, you’re faced with the horrific task of placing all the bags inside your car’s truck.
As always, everybody packed way to much stuff!!!!
You’ve placed all the bags on the ground, near the car’s truck and you’re looking at both the car and that huge pile of luggage. What do you do now?
Some of us will just start throwing bags inside the car and hope for the best. Talk about trial and error!
Most of us will use our minds to simulate ourselves trying to fit all the bags in the car. We’ll visualize both the bags and the car space and do all the ‘trial and error’ inside our brains. When faced with a solution that proves itself worth trying, we’ll then move to the physical task.
One of the most amazing features of our visual minds is its ability to create, view and manipulate 3D rendering of objects. On the previous test, you where making, inside your head, some impressive infographic work!
Again, Kosslyn and Koenig give us some help: “In a survey we discovered that most people report having images of the second kind; when they imagine practicing something, they see themselves from someone else’s point of view.” (7) If we look at this finding in a reverse order, we can understand that, when presenting our audiences with infographics that translate visually what would go inside someone’s visual mind, we are not only providing a helpful model for communicating, we’re doing it in a ‘brain-friendly way’, since this is the way our minds processes this kind of tasks.
The process we’ve been talking about is called a ‘mental mode’. Here is Kosslyn again, to help us out: “Mental simulations are imagined scenarios that mimic what one would expect to happen in the corresponding actual situation, and depictive representations play a key role in such reasoning because they make explicit and accessible aspects of shape and spatial relations that otherwise need not be evident (…) imagery is useful in large part because it can lead to the unexpected. Imagery allows one to anticipate the consequences of “trying something out” before actually doing it. In fact, imagery can allow one to anticipate the consequences of trying something – such as catching up with a beam of light – that one cannot actually do.” (8)
That last mention on Kosslyn’s quote, about the beam of light, is from Einstein’s description on how he though about the Theory of Relativity. Einstein used to say that he didn’t think in abstract. Actually, what he did was visualize a certain problem and then find some visual evidences that would lead his thoughts. Sounds familiar? OK, so packing your bags inside your car is not E=MC2 but, nevertheless, you’re working your brain as one of the biggest genius in mankind did!
As we can easily see, mental modes are nothing more than ‘mental infographics’ and that’s where the communication power of visualization resides. To make these ‘brain graphics’ we use mental images. How do these work? That’s what we’re about to find out.
Again, Kosslyn is of great help in our quest to understand how the brain works: “visual images are stored in memory much as a snapshot is stored in a photograph album” (8), and with Koenig he adds: “imagery can be used in four ways: to access information in memory, help one reason, learn new skills, and aid comprehension of verbal descriptions (…) We can “mentally draw,” making scribbles that we have never actually seen. Visual imagery is central to visual cognition in part because we use it creatively, forming novel patterns to be viewed before the “mind’s eye.”” (7)
What we store in our brains are mostly images, visual information. These pictures are organized in parts and are accessed whenever we need information about something. When I write the word ‘computer’, what your brain does, when you read it, is it picks a picture of a computer and retrieves all the information you have about a computer.
To do this kind of information scanning, we have a ‘mind’s eye’ to look at our mental images. This eye inside our brain has many of the properties of our own eyes (Kosslyn (8)), and it allow us, not only to remember individual objects, but also properties of those objects and prototypes versions (Kosslyn and Koenig (7)).
To understand how does this inner eye works, we’ll have to look at it in more detail.
Time again for yet another test. Two more actually:
Quick, what color are a shark’s eyes?
A little bit trickier this time:
How many gills does a shark have?
On both shark questions above, here’s what was going on inside your brain: You’ve pulled from your mind’s ‘library’ a mental image of a shark, actually it was a very rough version (I will bet that it was a picture from a great white. Thanks Spielberg!). Then your mind’s eye ‘sent’ an attention window to the head of the fish, where you ‘zoomed and rendered the picture’ just enough to collect the needed information.
To answer the first question, your zoom and rendition was relatively low, you had your answer in no time: “they’re black!”. For the second, trickier question, your attention window moved back a little and the effort for the picture’s rendition was bigger, much bigger. Maybe, you’ve had to ‘pull’ a couple more pictures to answer this one. Finally: “it has four or five gills!”
Actually, a shark has a minimum of five gills, up to seven (at least that’s what Google tells me!).
Let’s try to analyze what you’ve done, breaking it in little parts: You chose a shark picture, you zoom in on two parts of the shark – creating two sub-pictures on top of the main picture, each with it’s level of zooming and resolution. You then retrieve whatever information is there in the sub-pictures caption, from your memory, in order to reply to the question.
The last paragraph, without changing many words, could be on a text book about infographics. And again, that’s an explanation of how our brain works!
But it is not only with static images that this process occurs, movement is also very helpful and informative: “People, even infants as young as four months of age, prefer to look at moving spots of light that form a figure rather than at spots moving at random—that is, they prefer to watch biological motion rather than nonbiological motion. (…) Our brain has evolved to use every clue available to find out what is going on in the world.” (Kandel (6))
Actually, our brain also works like a movie, as Grodal teach us: “Antonio Damasio (1999) describes core consciousness as a wordless storytelling and proceeds: Movies are the closest external representation of the prevailing storytelling that goes on in our minds. What goes on within each shot, the different framing of a subject that the movement of the camera can accomplish, what goes on in the transition of shots achieved by editing, and what goes on in the narrative constructed by a particular juxtaposition of shot is comparable in some respects to what goes on in the mind, thanks to the machinery in charge of making visual and auditory images, and to devices such as the many levels of attention and working memory.” (2)
Please take notice of a very important word on the above quote: ‘storytelling’. All the of above described functions of your brain exist with the intent of creating this storytelling inside your mind and keeping those stories stored for whenever you need them, in the future. Any good infographic is also a story in itself and, therefore, can be stored inside your audience’s brain for future reference.
What are our visual brain pitfalls?
But not everything is perfect on our brain’s relation with information. Not every type of information can be easily converted into visual information, inside our minds. That’s where a specific field of infographics can provide the best available help for everyone of us.
Let’s start slowly.
Sounding almost contrary to what I’ve been writing about, there’s a very important piece of information about our minds that is needed at this point. One piece of information that should always guide whatever we do, on our efforts to communicate:
We have really, really lazy brains. And when I write lazy, I mean L-A-Z-Y!
Here is Daniel Kahneman, on his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ (which is going to be an huge help on this section) about this subject: “if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.” Because of that: “The sense-making machinery (…) makes us see the world as more tidy, simple, predictable, and coherent than it really is.” (9)
Let’s take yet another test. This is the last one (I promise!) and, by large, the harder one. Actually, it’s so hard that I need to copy it – freely – from Kahneman’s book:
Imagine a large city, like New York, and that it faces, each year, 200 “frivolous” suits, each with a 5% chance to cost the city $1 million. Suppose further that in each case the city could settle the lawsuit for a payment of $100,000.
What should the city do? Take it’s chances in court or pay to settle?
For various reasons, from our difficulty to ‘compute’ large numbers, to our brain’s innate risk aversion, this problem posses a hard call.
Let’s do the math then:
If the city litigates all 200 cases, it will lose 10 (5% of 200), for a total loss of $10 million.
If the city settles every case for $100,000, its total loss will be of $20 million.
When faced with numbers, percentages, choices made from data, risk taking choices, etc; our brains will, most of the times, fail us. Even if we are the most rational of animals, Kahneman tell us, we often need help to make more accurate judgments and better decisions (9).
I see here a great opportunity for infographics and for helping our audiences compute information. Let’s look again into some of our human brains pitfalls.
Kahneman ‘divides’ our brains into two different parts. He calls those parts systems. The first system, System 1, is the fast one, the ‘unconscious’ one, if you will. This system will provide you with most of the answers you’ll find for problems in your life.
System 1 is the ‘Fast’ from Kahneman’s book title ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’.
It is then obvious that we need a ‘slow’ system and that’s System 2, the conscious one and also the lazy one. System 2 is like that guy in your workplace that will keep a low profile in order to have as less tasks to perform as he can, but when he does something, it is done to near perfection.
Right then, back to what our brains aren’t that great at doing.
The first kind of information we have a real problem dealing with is large data sets and drawing conclusions from those. Our minds are designed to dig ‘fast and life-saving conclusions’ from information and, in order to do so, are much better in finding averages inside a large set than in computing that data (System 1 versus System 2). Finding averages inside a set is very similar to finding visual patterns in nature and we’re great at that.
Imagine yourself living in the savannah, some 150,000 years ago. You’re looking at a herd of what you hope will become your family’s next meal. Nevertheless, you face a problem, a very serious problem: these animals tend to defend themselves.
By having a great ability to find the average size of the herd’s beasts, you have the upper hand into making the life-saving decision of whether you’re going for the kill or you’ll skip this one herd.
If your brain didn’t had this average ability (built in the fast System 1), you would have to measure, visually, each animal of the herd and compute any differences of size you’d find (the slow System 2). Let’s just say that the animals would have migrated by the time you’d finnish with such a task!
Well, back to our urban life and our urban brains… actually, our urban life and our hunter-gatherer brains. For as much social and technologic evolution our species has achieved, we still use a rather ‘old’ brain, like our ancestors once did. Our brains weren’t build to process the type and amount of data that our modern life imposes. As Kahneman says: “Because System 1 represents categories by a prototype or a set of typical exemplars, it deals well with averages but poorly with sums. The size of the category, the number of instances it contains, tends to be ignored”. (9)
But it gets even worth, trust me. What about really processing information inside those large data sets? Performing operations like statistical reasoning? I leave it to Kahneman to deliver you with the bad news (I’ll keep the good ones for last, delivered by myself!): “(…) our mind is strongly biased toward causal explanations and does not deal well with ‘mere statistics’ (…) System 1 is inept when faced with ‘merely statistical’ facts”. (9)
Kahneman goes on with the bad news: “judgments of similarity and probability are not constrained by the same logical rules (…) A question about probability or likelihood activates a mental shotgun, evoking answers to easier questions (…) The question about probability (likelihood) was difficult, but the question about similarity was easier, and it was answered instead.” (9)
Remember that we humans need help to make better decisions? Well, now you start to understand why is that. What’s even more, different ways of presenting the same information often evoke different emotions: The statement that “the odds of survival one month after surgery are 90%” is more reassuring than the equivalent statement that “mortality within one month of surgery is 10%.” (Kahneman (9))
Now that I have you all depressed and no longer certain of your unquestionable domain over mind and matter (blaming Kahneman will not get you anywhere, instead I do advise you to read his amazing book), let me deliver you the good news. How can you care for your poor-helpless brain and that of your audience?
With the use of infographics, the kind of information we struggle so much with – in order to compute it – can be presented in a way that will help your audience brains in coping with such a natural unease to work with numbers, percentages, etc. The usage of charts has been an important technique of what we call infographics and it is a practice that makes perfect communication sense – now you understand why.
By knowing that our audiences minds have quite a hard time coping with numerical information, with large data sets, etc; we can provide them with a most wanted and welcomed help: the visual representation of what’s at stake. This representations will be, most of the times, abstract and will take advantage of the strong visual capabilities of our brains: Finding visual patterns, comparing simple size differences between two similar objects (like bars height on a bar chart), etc.
Nevertheless, a couple of advices here might help you further:
Please notice that, like your audience’s brains, so does your brain have problems coping with the kind of information we’ve been speaking about. Everyone that is working with charts, looking to provide the most helpful visual representation of a difficult problem, must be twice as aware that their own brain might be ‘downgrading’ their visual solution.
There’s an entire field about charts and the best way to present certain data sets. I fully advise you to investigate it as much as you can. Stephen M. Kosslyn, quoted a lot in this article, is author to one of the most important books any infographic artist can have: ‘Graph Design for the Eye and Mind’ (10). Go ahed and buy it, then keep it always on your side, just in case!
Other common mistakes can be prevented if, once you’ve achieved what might look like the best visual solution for representing a problem, you’ll go through all that we’ve learned before – making sure that your chart is ‘brain friendly’, by using every knowledge of how our human visual minds work.
For instance, does your chart fit in one attention window or does it need zooming and shifting? If it does fit, have you make certain that the least effort is guaranteed for information to be gathered?
Another question: have you used a simple enough solution that takes advantage of the brains capability to create a mental model and compare different amounts?
In order to help you with this questions and a couple of others, let me finish this article with some ‘brain friendly’ advices. We’ll be using some of the previously mentioned books and also Susan Weinschenk marvelous book ‘100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People’. (11)
Advice 1: Make it Simple
Sometimes we take this for granted, it’s a very simple concept.
Nevertheless, we often misunderstand what ‘make it simple’ really means. Lisa Cron can help us out: “Ironically, the only way to evoke the fullness of reality is by first zeroing in on the heart of the particular story you’re telling and parsing away all the real-life distractions that don’t affect it.” (3)
In order to make our story, our infographic, simple; one must not only remove any graphical clutter from it, one must also edit the content in a way that nothing else than the elements of our story are presented.
Looks simple but it isn’t, most of the times we, as creators, are so attached to the information we’re communicating that we’ll use any means to add something else, one more little brick that will, eventually, make all of our construction fall down.
Advice 2: Use Simple Drawing and Icons
Another ‘no-brainer’ I ear you say to yourself.
Yes, it reads like common knowledge, but this concept has more to it than meets the eye. Susan Weinschenk is here to help us understand why this is such an important concept: “Favor 2D elements over 3D ones. The eyes communicate what they see to the brain as a 2D object. 3D representations (…) may actually slow down recognition and comprehension.” (11)
Kosslyn and Koenig help us further by reminding us that “Very early on, the first Homo sapiens discovered that they could evoke the recognizable image of an object or an animal by a few strokes on a bone, in clay, on a cliff or a cave wall—and that drawing the major contours was enough.” (7) and Weinschenk adds “People imagine objects tilted and at a slight angle above (My note: this is called canonical perspective) (…) It seems to be a universal trait that we think about, remember, imagine, and recognize objects from this canonical perspective (…) People recognize a drawing or object faster and remember it better if it’s shown in the canonical perspective.” (11)
Advice 3: Use Categories
Infographics are all about presenting information visually, in the best way we possibly can. Weinschenk keeps helping us in trying to achieve this goal: “Categorizing doesn’t emerge as a skill until about age seven. Thinking about categories just doesn’t make sense to children before that. After age seven, however, kids become fascinated with categorizing information. (…) If you don’t provide categories, people will create their own”, and this is because “People like to put things into categories.” In conclusion “If there is a lot of information and it is not in categories, people will feel overwhelmed and try to organize the information on their own.” (11)
Advice 4: Make Changes Obvious
Another great book that I advise everybody to read is ‘Now You See It’ by the great Cathy N. Davidson; this is a book about attention, learning and working. It not only is a great and informative reading, it has this gem to help us improve our infographic work: “On a biological level, attention blindness is located deep within the brain and nervous system. If things are habitual, we do not pay attention to them—until they become a problem. Attention is about difference.” (12) Kahneman adds “Our mind has a useful capability to focus spontaneously on whatever is odd, different, or unusual.” (9)
Does this mean we must design all of our infographics in a differently, unusual manner? Of course not! What it means is that editing what are the most important bits of information is also a task that must be addresses visually. For example, if you have something in the middle of a text that should be stated to be very important, make it bold and red, in order to stand from the rest of the information.
Nevertheless, please make sure that this bit of information speaks by itself, since it’s going to capture your audiences attention and be processed before any other information presented on your infographic. Want to see how this can go wrong?
Imagine a work titled ’5 tips on visual information’. Sometimes we see infographics where some numbers are highlighted like this ’9% of readers are color-blind’. Now, since the title doesn’t relate immediately with the number, your audience will be puzzled, ‘9%????? What is this?’
Advice 5: Take Attention to Color-Blindness
My final advice is one that is so often disregarded (I know I’ve done it a lot!), remember that there are a large number of humans that are color-blind! Again, Weinschenk is here to help us: “Nine percent of men and one-half percent of women are color-blind (…) When designing color coding, consider colors that work for everyone, for example, varying shades of brown and yellow.” (11)
Let’s look at this data with what we’ve learned so far. Remember Kaheman affirmation “different ways of presenting the same information often evoke different emotions”? (9) Let me rephrase Weinschenk’s statement for you:
9 in every 100 male readers will not be able to correctly see the colors on your infographic.
5 in every 1000 female readers will have problems with most of the colors we usually use in graphic design.
Now, talk about emotion! Do you really want that much people not being able to understand your amazing infographic story, just because you couldn’t choose a different color palette?
For those of us who work in infographics: the knowledge of how the brain works will give you invaluable information on how to make better visualizations. I advise you all to explore the world of cognitive science. There’s a list at the end of this article with all the books I’ve mentioned and that could be the starting point for your personal teaching on these subjects.
For those of us who say they cannot think ‘infographics’ because they can’t draw, or design: your brains work like that, just listen to it!
For those publications that don’t use infographics:
I hope that this article has provide you with sufficient information to convince you that infographics can be a powerful tool for your communication efforts. Not only does infographics ‘speak’ the same language that is inside of all of your audience’s brains, it also addresses, spot on, the faults inside human minds and helps to make sense of some type of information.
In a world that is full with noise – noise which is created because of the amount of available information and the repetition of news –, he who can provide the best, most comprehensible information will thrive. And that’s not something to overlook on these crises-times the news-media business now faces.
Infographics could well be one of the best solutions to rise above the noise and provide some perceived value to your audience. And that’s good business!!
1: How the Mind Works; By Steven Pinker
2: Embodied Visions: Evolution, Emotion, Culture, and Film; by Torben Grodal
4: Self Comes to Mind; by Antonio Damasio
5: The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human; by V. S. Ramachandran
7. Wet Mind; by Stephen M. Kosslyn, Olivier Koenig
8: The Case for Mental Imagery: 39 (Oxford Psychology Series); by Stephen M. Kosslyn, William L. Thompson, Giorgio Ganis
9. Thinking, Fast and Slow; by Daniel Kahneman
10: Graph Design for the Eye and Mind, by Stephen M. Kosslyn
11: 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People (Voices That Matter); by Susan Weinschenk
12: Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn; by Cathy N. Davidson
This article was first published on the 2013 Malofiej book.
The original illustrations are the work of the amazing (and dear friend) João Lemos