It’s easy to be overwhelmed by information. We see it everyday in supermarkets, advertisements, and presentations. In the supermarkets, everything seems like a blur with the seemingly endless choices and similar-looking labels.

Visual crowding is a well-documented phenomenon where too much activity in close proximity or peripheral vision will decrease visual accuracy and attention. In simple terms, if you put too many things close together, they will blend together. This is a problem if you need to display information, and a lot of it. Fortunately, there are theories on how to beat visual crowding.

First, we must understand that visual crowding doesn’t mean that people will avoid information or objects that are close together. Instead, it will be very difficult for people to piece together exactly what they’re seeing. Think of a painting like da Vinci’s The Last Supper, where there’s clearly a lot going on. It’s easy for information to blend together because there’s a lot of it, but people will still be able to discern that it’s a painting of people having a meal.

There are theories on exact measurements that quantify crowding, stemming from research done by vision researcher Herman Bouma. These theories claim that there is a set limit on how close objects can come to each other before they become crowded (shown below).

Visual Crowding

Visual Crowding

Other theories explain how to break the crowding effect. For example, if objects are close together and seem too similar, single out the important block of information. This way, people still get the necessary information, and anything else is an added bonus. Studies show that by doing this, the negative effects of crowding will decrease, even if only one block of information is singled out. Consider the image below, where one picture is singled out between two others.

Single out one visual

Single out one visual

Another strategy can be cueing, a topic covered on this blog before. By constantly showing one type of information in the same place or in the same format multiple times, you can avoid crowding entirely. This is because your audience will already be focused on a certain area to receive information.

Keep the same message consistent

Keep the same message consistent

Finally, the obvious solution is to stop grouping so many things together. This may seem less than ideal if you have a lot of information to get through, but it might be necessary. You can of course try to follow the strategies outlined here, but your best bet for maintaining information is to have less of it for the audience to focus on. By doing so, you keep your presentation clear and focused.

References

Whitney, D., & Levi, D. M. (2011). Visual crowding: a fundamental limit on conscious perception and object recognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(4), 160–8. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2011.02.005

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