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The psychology of design and science communication

Two sides of the brain, the logical left side and creative right side. Using logic and science to inform

As a researcher, you're no stranger to facts and figures.

But what happens when you’re suddenly thrown into the deep end of the creative ocean? 🌊 Perhaps you have been asked to design a scientific poster... or put together a beautiful presentation… Where do you start?! 😱

Graphic design is like a foreign language to scientists. Like:

Shape theory—What’s that?

Colour wheels—You’ve lost me! 😬

GIF of Jimmy Fallon looking lost
Me when I first learned graphic design.

It’s a whole load of mumbo-jumbo! But fret not, there’s a science behind the design process. 🧪🔬

In this three-part series, we share the scientific backbone behind certain design choices, empowering you to pull the right strings and guide your audience's eyes (and minds) exactly where you want them.

In Part 1 of this series, we focus on perception and memory!

Ready to unlock the mysteries of the brain? 🎨 Let's roll!

Your brain in a nutshell 🧠

Packed with over 85 billion neurons, your brain is a complex masterpiece, elegantly controlling your thoughts, feelings, and actions. It's a marvel that leaves even the smartest AI in the dust. ✨

Boasting up to one quadrillion connections (yes, that's a 1 followed by 15 zeros!), your brain offers almost unlimited storage capacity. 🤯 Add to that the signal transmission speed—which is how quickly your brain carries information—it runs at an astounding 432 kilometres per hour - and your brain is bustling with activity!

But what’s the brain’s most impressive feature? ✨ Perception ✨

Your brain is highly selective. Like a sorting factory, the brain constantly sifts through information to decide what is worthy of reaching our consciousness. Using past experiences to fill in gaps, and most of the time, the result cohesively matches the real world. Occasionally though, it dazzles us by creating something from nothing. 🤩

Need convincing? Well, let’s introduce you to the Kanizsa triangle.

There isn’t actually a triangle drawn, only the 'Pac-Man' style shapes and 60° wedges. Yet, thanks to our brain's knack for pattern recognition we fill in the missing information, and we perceive two triangles!

Kanizsa triangle optical illusion

This psychological wizardry can extend to the design of your content. The selection of fonts, colours, and layouts can profoundly shape your audience's perception, making your message more engaging. 🤩

So, how do you harness the power of design to effectively enhance science communication? Let’s find out! 👇

The power of visual processing 👀

Vision is our most dominant sense, providing a significant portion of the information our brain processes. It's a captivating world, full of colours, shapes, and movements. Understanding how our brains make sense of it all, can help you design your content in ways that align with natural cognitive processes, making it both aesthetically pleasing and easier to understand.

A GIF of a girl pointing to her eye, with the caption "You know how I process things visually."

The prudence of Hick's Law

Ever felt overwhelmed by too many choices? 🫤 That's Hick's Law in action! It states that the time it takes for a person to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices.

So, what does this mean for your design? Keep it simple and clear! ✨

A graph of Hicks Law, showing that the time it takes to make a decision increases with the number of choices

Avoid overwhelming your audience with too many colours or design elements. Less is more. Our brains love patterns and consistency. 😍 Repeated shapes, colours, or layouts bring a sense of cohesion to your design.

Balancing complexity and simplicity

In science, balancing complexity and simplicity is of crucial, distilling down the intricate details of your research whilst maintaining accuracy. Well, the same is true for your design! ⚖️

While our brains are capable of deciphering complex information, there is a clear preference for clarity and simplicity.

One option is to use visuals, such as diagrams, images, and graphs. 📊 In addition to our brain being able to process visuals in just 10-120 ms, 🤯 we tend to remember what we see better than what we hear.

A picture is worth a thousand words. A caution sign with an image of rocks falling from a cliff, next to another caution sign with written text explaining the danger.
Which is better… the image or the cliff notes?

Mastering the balance between complexity and simplicity is truly an art. Use visuals to make your content more engaging, speed up comprehension and enhance memory!

Grouping and patterns

Our brain has a natural tendency to identify patterns and group objects that are close in proximity. This innate ability can be a useful tool in visual communication. By arranging related elements together into coherent clusters, you can enhance the logical flow of information. Borders can further reinforce these groups, forming clear visual containers that signal these pieces belong together.

A mess of shapes on the left, and those same shapes ordered into boxes on the right.

For a natural and easy to follow layout, use a logical order, cohesive deign and grouping.

Understanding the brain's wonderful intricacies allows us to adopt design strategies rooted in science. 👨‍🔬

The unforgettable Von Restorff effect

But it's not just the multitude of options that can overwhelm us. Our brains process visual information bit by bit. For example looking at the angle of a line, then the colour, then the thickness.

The Von Restorff effect, named after Hedwig Von Restorff, is a psychological phenomenon that highlights our memory's fondness for uniqueness. We're more likely to remember an item if it differs starkly from its surroundings.

A field of white tulips, with a single red stand out tulip in the middle

So, if you want to highlight an important finding, or make a point memorable, select one distinctive feature—a striking accent colour, a different shape, or orientation.

Something to make it ✨ stand out ✨.

A group of differently coloured circles, next to a group of all blue circles with a single stand out orange circle.
A dash of colour stands out in a uniform group!


Ahhh, the crux of any presentation—you want your content to be remembered! Let’s take a quick look at how we store information. 🧠

The brain’s memory is outstanding—equal to around 2.5 petabytes or 2.5 million gigabytes of storage capacity! Electrical information flows through a neuron across a synapse via neurotransmitters.

A synapse between two neurons.

When two neurons are activated, their connection is strengthened, and if we repeat the information enough times this pattern is stored as a memory. A firing trace. 💥

Boosting recollection

But, short-term memory is limited. 😬

A graph showing a linear line where as list length increases, proportion of correct recollection decreases.
Nairne and Neath (2001) Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Consider how you remember your phone number, it’s likely broken up into groups of 2, 3 or 4 digits 🔢. To capitalise on your audiences ability to remember, limit the number of messages to no more than 3 key points! Even less, for more accurate recollection.

Timing is key: serial position effect

Does it matter, when these key points are presented? Yes, in fact it does!

The serial position effect describes our tendency to remember information that is at the beginning or end of a series, and harder to recall information in the middle.

A graph showing the serial position effect. It demonstrates a curve where the position of a word in a list has a higher recall at the start and end with a dip in the middle.
Glanzer and Cunitz (1966)

Think about the majority of scientific presentations, the most important results seem to pop up somewhere in the middle of the presentation. So to avoid your results getting lost in-between short-term and long-term memory, get to your key findings faster, or make sure to reiterate what you found at the end.

Capturing and recapturing attention

Attention is also selective and people can be easily distracted. 🙈

Detailed graphics, animations, and videos can distract your audience, but if used strategically, they can recapture attention. Coined “Pattern Interruption” anything that breaks the pattern of your presentation has the capacity to refocus your audience’s attention. So consider adding a video in the middle of your presentation to regain focus or adding a striking graphic to your poster to attract the viewer's attention.

Keep in mind that memory processing requires significant cognitive effort 💭. Don't rely on your audience to recall details from earlier parts of your presentation—instead reiterate the necessary information.

Finally, active engagement aids memory retention. If people interact, use or apply information, it’s more likely to stick. So, involve your audience by adding interactive elements or asking thought-provoking questions. 💡

The psychology of design summary

Our brains are intricate networks of neurons and synapses, capable of immense learning. Understanding the brain's visual processing and memory capabilities facilitates effective design.

Here are our top takeaways to keep in mind when designing:

🌟 Keep your designs simple and consistent.

🌟 Use visuals to speed up comprehension and enhance memory!

🌟 Leverage colour and/or shape to highlight key points.

🌟 Stick to 1-3 key messages at the start or end of the presentation.

Still feeling overwhelmed? Let us handle the design.

Leave the hard stuff to our PhD-trained creative experts. From layout to illustrations, we can translate your complex research into engaging designs that align with your audience's visual processing and memory capabilities.

We’ve had the pleasure of creating posters and graphics for academics all over the world using our award-winning formula for success. Allow us to take care of the design work so you can focus on what’s most important: your research! 🔬

Learn more about our design services here or contact our team today.


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