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Design for information transmission

Design for information transmission

Our Short Term Memory Capacity

The theory goes, humans can only remember 5-9 items in a short amount of time. That is, our attention, what our consciousness perceives, has an upper limit of 5-9 items (5-9 pieces of information).

This means we can only hold a certain amount of information in short term memory at one time. This holds true for the visual field of graphic design with the old trick "it’s best to not exceed 7 items in a composition".

Once we exceed the limit with about 12 items, things get fuzzy.


Grouping (adding to take away)

Fortunately, we can use graphic design concepts to help us reduce this information. Remember that part of our job as motion designers is to convey information in the best most memorable way possible. We can use some design techniques to reduce the amount of items that has to be remembered (because the less amount of items, the better). One helpful technique is grouping. 

Want to see of grouping in action? Think of telephone numbers. Take the numbers...


This is painful to memorize.

man confused

Photo by Sammy Williams 


These 10 numbers or “items” exceed our general memory upper limit of 5-9 items.



So Instead, we can group. And there are two ways to group in design

1. Proximity Grouping

Grouping by proximity is spatial grouping — with our phone number example, we group by proximity by chunking numbers in 3's and 4's so it's 514  821  3723 instead of 5148213723. 



These 10 numbers (or items) are a lot easier to remember because we’ve grouped the items into proxemic groups (spatially related groups).

In his book, The Law’s of Simplicity, John Meada explains that to make many appear as few, one must ORGANIZE. This organization in the above example can be thought of as an organizational layer.

So we’re “adding” an organizational layer to take away the amount of items. This is a cognitive technique we can use in our everyday life when bombarded with information.

As it turns out, this is what we do with everything.

Grouping is a cognitive technique that produces an efficient way of dealing with new information. What’s interesting is in learning something completely new (for example, driving for the first time), we experience the most neural growth because we don’t have as much to group the new experience into. Ultimately, information from all experiences are 'grouped' into our current mental models.  


2. Similarity Grouping

Grouping with similarity is fairly easy to understand. It involves grouping 'like with like' items. We can group by similarity with Visual Grouping, and Conceptual Grouping


Visual Grouping

As motion designers, we group visually using characteristics like colour, style, texture, or size.


Conceptual Grouping

Grouping this way would involve word associations.

For example, grouping items like a list of “health benefits” (i.e. aid digestion, lower cholesterol, reduce aging) or “activities” (i.e. take a breathe, settle back, tranquilize). For this, use free tools like http://thesaurus.com to think of new words, synonyms, and like words.



Use Organizational Layers to Remove Perceived Mental Items

What if we have even more items on the list? Take the number above and add to it (514821372383621)? Well, we could group into items in lists of 5: 51482 13723 83621.

But it's still more difficult to remember.

Sure, we have an organizational layer of 3 but we have an item list of 5. And because of this, we’re stressing our memory resources. Better to spread out this number into more organizational layers: 514 821 372 83621.





Since motion designers are continually faced with the challenge of cramming more information into less time (and attention), we can look at good information design practices and concepts for some helpful tips.

As seen above, one way motion designers can get better at information design is to group lists/items/elements by proximity so lists appear shorter.

As content creators, we work on the message so that our viewers don’t have to. Information transmission involves using a combination of proximity grouping and similarity grouping . These strategies will give your content the best recall rates. We want to make it easier for viewers to cognitively ‘download’ our content.


Gerba, Bill. “Making great digital signage content: A quick reference guide.” The Digital Signage Insider