Seeing Is Believing: 5 Studies About Visual Information Processing

Have you ever wondered how we see things the way we do?

Are you curious about how we take in the visuals in an environment filled with strong sensory stimuli and how we interpret what we see?

The phenomenon is called visual information processing or visual perception.

Visual information processing is the ability to interpret what you see.

Visual perception plays a big role in our everyday life. It helps us in learning and interacting with others. Because of the ease with which we rely on perception, we tend to overlook the complexity behind it. Understanding how we interpret what we see can help us design and organize visual information.

Let’s take a look at five psychological studies that reveal some remarkable insights into how people perceive visual information.

Table of contents

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1. Visual assumption theory by Richard Gregory

Psychologist Richard Gregory believed that visual perception relies on top-down processing.

Top-down processing, also known as conceptual-driven processing, happens when you form your visual perception starting with the big picture.

We make our best guess of what we see based on expectations, beliefs, prior knowledge, and past experiences. In other words, we make calculated assumptions. According to Gregory, we are typically correct in those assumptions.

The hollow mask experiment

One of the trials Gregory ran in order to test his theory was called the hollow mask experiment.

He used the rotation of a Charlie Chaplin mask to explain how we perceive the hollow surface of the mask as protruding based on our expectations of the world. Our prior knowledge of a normal face is that the nose protrudes. So, we subconsciously reconstruct the hollow face into a normal face.

Based on Gregory’s theory, we can say that:

  • Nearly 90% of what we see is lost by the time it reaches our brains. Because of this, the brain has to make its best guess based on our past experiences or prior knowledge.
  • The visual information we see is combined with previously stored information about the world, which we have built up as a result of experience.
  • Our surroundings help to provide context to the visual information we absorb.

Visual design tips based on Gregory’s visual assumption theory:

  1. Pair your data with relevant theme and visuals.
  2. Use meaningful headline to set key expectations.
  3. Support visuals with relevant text.
illustration showing visual design tips based on Gregory's visual assumption theory

2. Color relations experiment by Thomas Sanocki and Noah Sulman

Studies have shown that a group of similar colors is perceived as harmonious and pleasant while contrasting colors are associated with chaos or boldness.

In 2011, Thomas Sanocki and Noah Sulman conducted an experiment on color relations in order to gauge the impact of color on visual short-term memory.

Four sets of trials were carried out using both harmonious and disharmonious color palettes. In each trial, observers were presented with two sets of color patterns and asked to compare them. Participants were asked to rate whether the patterns shown were ‘same’ or ‘different’. Observers were also expected to rate whether the pattern was harmonious.

The following examples are the four types of color patterns used:

Based on the results of the study, Sanocki and Sulman concluded that:

  • People remember color patterns better when the color palette is harmonious.
  • People remember patterns with fewer colors (two-color palettes) better than patterns with more colors (four-color palettes).
  • The contrast of surrounding colors impacted how well we remember the color pattern. In other words, color differences between the content and the background may enhance our ability to focus our attention on the content itself.

Visual design tips based on Sanocki and Sulman’s color relations experiment:

  1. Reduce color complexity and stick to one color scheme with presenting complex information.
  2. Use high contrast between the text, illustration, or icon and the background color.
  3. Be mindful when using color palettes of more than three.
illustration showing visual design tips based on Sanocki and Sulman's color relations experiment

3. Binocular rivalry phenomenon

Binocular rivalry occurs when our eyes see two different images in the same location. One image dominates while the other is suppressed. The dominance alternates periodically, so rather than seeing a single combination of both visuals at all times, we experience the alternation of the images over time as the two visuals compete for visual dominance.

In 1998, Frank Tong, Ken Nakayama, J. Thomas Vaughan, and Nancy Kanwisher observed this phenomenon firsthand.

In their experiment, four participants were shown, through red-green filter glasses, an image of a face and a house in an organized set. Each eye was set to see one specific image at a time. The visual-selective responses of observers were monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

According to their experiment:

  • The fMRI for all observers indicated strong binocular rivalry when dissimilar visuals were presented.
  • Binocular rivalry happens during the visual processing stage. In other words, during the short period of time when our eyes rest upon two dissimilar images that are close together, we will not be able to determine what we actually see.

Visual design tips based on the binocular rivalry phenomenon

  1. Avoid content clutter in your visuals.
  2. Highlight important points by increasing font size or changing its colors.
  3. Stick to consistency in your design theme.

4. Influence of typography and aesthetics on reading

Did you know that typography can affect your mood and your ability to solve problems?

In an experiment conducted by Kevin Larson of Microsoft and Rosalind Picard at MIT, it turned out that typography can have an effect on a reader’s mood and cognitive performance.

In two different studies, participants were divided into separate groups and given 20 minutes to read a typeset issue of a magazine (The New Yorker) on a tablet device.

One of the groups was presented with a badly typeset version, while the other group was presented with a properly typeset version.

During the session, participants were interrupted and asked to estimate the amount of time they thought had passed since the experiment began.

The results of the study showed that:

  • Participants from both groups underestimated their reading time. This implies that reading is an engaging task.
  • Participants in the proper typography group greatly underestimated their reading time compared to participants that were reading items with poor typography. This implies that reading with good typography is even more engaging.

Visual design tips based on Larson and Picard’s experiment on typography influence:

  1. Use easy-to-read font types.
  2. Ensure there’s enough white space between your text and visuals.
  3. Avoid placing images or icons between texts.
illustration showing visual design tips based on Larson and Picard's experiment on typography influence

5. Recognizing the gist of a scene

Have you ever wondered what “a picture’s worth a thousand words” really means? Why are we able to understand visuals more thoroughly than text?

As humans, we have the ability to gather context based on what we see. When we fix our eyes on something, we have the ability to form an understanding of the environment and recognize the meaning of a scene.

What is it?

According to Ronald A. Rensink, a research scientist from Nissan Research & Development, Inc., perception of scene gist or scene perception is the visual perception of an environment as viewed by an observer at any given time.

It includes not only the perception of individual objects but also things like their relative locations and expectations about what other kinds of objects might be encountered.

On the influence of color on scene perception

In 2008, Monica S. Castelhano from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and John M. Henderson from the University of Edinburgh conducted an experiment on the influence of color in activating scene gist.

The experiment was conducted in three different trials. Undergraduates were exposed to a few hundreds of photographs of natural or man-made objects in various conditions. Participants were asked to determine whether or not a target object matched the scene they were seeing.

Normal and blurred photographs with colors and monochrome sample photographs were presented.

blurred image examples, color scheme examples in the experiment

To determine the role of colors in our scene perception, the following sample photographs were used:

color perception examples in the experiment

They also studied the range of abnormality with the following samples:

color perception experiment samples for range of abnormality

According to Castelhano and Henderson’s findings:

  • Observers were able to match the scenes and target objects within a second. This implies people can quickly get the meaning of a normal scene.
  • Observers were able to match the scenes in less time if they were colored correctly (as compared to black and white). This means colors can help us understand scenes better.
  • Overall, colors help define the structure of objects. As long as the colors are not too different from what we normally perceive, we’ll be able to easily understand the meaning of an image.

Visual design tips based on Larson and Picard’s experiment on typography influence:

  1. Use the (perceptually) correct icon or image to represent data. For example, a heart icon is universally associated with love, passion, or relationhips.
  2. Be mindful of your layout and design hierarchy.
  3. Use colors when possible, especially if you want to highlight important data or information.
visual perception of colors

How do these findings affect your design? 

Understanding how people perceive visual information reveals a great deal about the best practices for designing your infographics, presentations, posters, and other types of visuals.

Based on these findings, here are some important information design tips:

  1. Consider your layout and visual hierarchy.
  2. Use images, illustrations, icons, and other graphic elements as much as possible.
  3. Be mindful of your color schemes.
  4. Choose the right fonts.
infographic showing design best practices and tips based on the research findings of the studies and experiments mentioned in the article

Create your own stunning visuals with these Piktochart templates

Keeping these points in mind, now you can get to work creating beautiful and compelling visuals. Here’s a collection of templates to help you get started.

Basic infographic template

basic infographic template by Piktochart

Basic presentation template

a preview of basic presentation template by Piktochart

Basic poster template

basic poster template

Basic trifold brochure template

Property listing Instagram post template

Happy Piktochart-ing!

This blog post was originally published on October 31, 2014 and updated on June 23, 2022 for relevance, new templates, and comprehensiveness.

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