• M.D. Michaud

3 visual strategies to boost signal, curb noise

Updated: May 23, 2019

Use visuals to convey meaning, not just information.


We're living in a world of visual blather. If I see too much social media, I get that feeling that I got in 6th grade, riding the Tilt-a-Whirl at the summer carnival. My firm, VisuaLeverage, sprung out of my experience working in and around medical care and public health systems--two systems whose complexity can induce that same kind of Tilt-a-Whirl nausea.


In a world of over-information, we use visual cues to help us navigate complex meaning. Here are three tips for creating more signal, less noise.



1. Make your message into "brain candy." If you're attempting to appeal to human eyes of today, it pays to know something about from whence we came. We were evolved for vision. In fact, the first organisms who developed cells with photoreceptors about 740 million years ago sensed illuminated contrast (i.e. light and shadow), which remains one of our most important visual strategies for survival, safety, and wayfinding. Later on, simple "eyes" could detect lines.

Later, as early hominids played their first hopscotch games nearly 5 million years ago, mammalian eyes had come a long, long way. In nanoseconds, eyes could transmit visual info brains, picking up on subtle environmental shifts, social cues and meaning.


Contrast shows dimension and direction: Which way is up?

Line leads our eyes to the important things: Boundaries, paths, focal points. Horizontal lines can "ground" us, while diagonals can sometimes give us that Tilt-a-Whirl feeling.

Size tells us a lot about importance: In the world of priorities, if something is bigger, it often matters more.

Color provokes complex responses, so use it sparingly.

Faces draw in human attention. We are hard-wired to look for faces.


Contrast and line, two of the first strategies we learn in art class, are like "candy" for human brains seeking orientation and meaning. Pare things down, and pay attention to the basics.


2. When you don't have much time, start with your point. In academia, we're often taught to start written analysis with a hypothesis, then get into why we suspect we're right, go into great detail about our evidence, and offer our main point twelve pages later.


When your CEO tells you she has three minutes to hear your idea, use a visual to make the first impression the most important. The tip of the triangle of information should point up, not down.


3. Break complex concepts into 3's. There is some good evidence that by breaking big ideas into groups of three sub-concepts, we can help people understand and recall the key points. McKinsey's "pyramid principle" builds on Barbara Minto's original idea for structured, memorable communication.

Drawing out your ideas on paper can also help you become clearer about your key messages. This exercise engages distinct parts of the brain, too, increasing your likelihood of a more creative angle.


When it comes to increasing signal and cutting noise, simple visuals can go a long way.

For more information about using visuals to make complex ideas more useful, visit www.visualeverage.com.

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