Academic journal article Visible Language

How Humans Process Visual Information: A Focused Primer for Designing Information

Academic journal article Visible Language

How Humans Process Visual Information: A Focused Primer for Designing Information

Article excerpt


The ability to develop and understand written communication is a hallmark of human ingenuity. Over time Western cultures moved from simple scratches to pictorals and complex symbol systems that emerged as alphabets. As time progressed, written communication in the Western world became more dependent on forming words [text] with alphabets. Apparently wordforming alphabets provided needed clarity to symbol and image-based messages. (Dehaene, 2009)

The Gutenberg press and other tools for mass production of communication made text-based communications easier to create thus providing the vehicles for text to become increasingly dominant. In other words, Western communication became more reliant on text-based presentation of key concepts while images and symbols became less dominate.

At first, only selected populations were taught to read text. Today however, the majority of people in the Western world are taught how to read text. Since reading text is not an innate human ability such as walking or talking, special training is required. Statistics show that some people learn to read text easier than others. (See figure 1)

According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report many U.S. high school students cannot read above 5th-grade level and 25% of seniors score below basic reading level. As shown in Figure 1, U.S. students scored well below the total 500 points possible within each grade level tested. During a similar period, an international comparison of students using a 1000 point scoring total, showed that U.S. students' average reading score was 498/1000 points, ranking the U.S. 20 out of 21 countries tested. (NAEP, U.S. Department of Education, 2013.) These statistics indicate the U.S. education system has a major communication challenge in teaching reading literacy that needs to be further addressed.

Among those who can read text, statistics show that some understand text content better than others. The question is: What percentage of people in the U.S. can both read text and accurately understand its content? In other words, how many people are estimated to be proficient in reading literacy?1

Data from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics' publication The Condition of Education 2014 (NCES 2014-083) indicate that only 13% of adults were at or above Proficient in reading literacy. Conversely stated, 87% of adults rank Below Proficient in literacy ability. (See figure 2)

In this study literacy was defined as being able to use "... printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential.'' The study identified 4 levels of performance:

"Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient...13 percent of adults were at or above Proficient (indicating they possess the skills necessary to perform complex and challenging literacy activities) in 2003." (NCES 2014-083)

Therefore, the number of readers in the U.S. who have difficulty reading or correctly interpreting text represents the majority of the adult population. It is a sad irony - at a time when our culture is being inundated with information - that the majority of U.S. citizens may have difficulty or can not properly interpret or correctly understand what they are reading. This poses a pivotal challenge to professionals whose job it is to effectively convey information using text.

Investigating Text Formats

Any number of variables could be contributing to this situation. Upon a review of research addressing this topic, it became apparent that com- paratively few scientific studies have focused on how information is being formatted for authentic, or everyday real-world, materials used for transmitting information.

Existing experimental cognitive research that has been applied to information design is often simplistic in form and not parallel to the complex imagery of learning and daily life. …

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