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Predicting Where a Viewer’s Attention Will Go

Predicting Where a Viewer’s Attention Will Go
When designing graphics for signs, vehicle wraps, point of purchase displays and other items, it's important to make your graphics work as effectively as possible. To be effective, a graphic must grab the viewer's attention in just a few seconds and help them register the most important pieces of information. When evaluating a design, many times it's easy to tell when something “just doesn't look right.” However, other times it can be very difficult to pinpoint a feature that isn't doing its job.

Fortunately, research into vision science has resulted in the identification of a number of factors that can have an impact on where the viewer's attention will go within the first few seconds of seeing the image. By knowing these factors, sign shops can have a better idea of how to design the most impactful displays:

  • Color: Color can be a powerful attention-getter, but only if it's a color that is unique in the image. Many people assume that simply using red will help an item stand out on a display, but if red is also featured elsewhere in the sign then its impact is diluted. The truth is, any color can work to draw attention – what's important is for the color to be unique.
  • Shapes: Just as a unique color in an image will jump out at the viewer, so will a unique shape, which the brain will recognize very quickly. However, things get more complicated when there is a mix of shapes. If you're using a circular shape with text to highlight information, make sure it's the only circular shape in the image.
  • Edges: The human brain instinctively pays attention to edges. In the case of a sign, edges don't just mean the sign's periphery, but also edges created by things like text and the borders of shapes featured on the sign. To really draw attention, edges should be high in contrast relative to the surrounding area.
  • Contrast: A big difference between the lightest and darkest parts of a sign makes it more likely to get noticed. This is why dark text on a white background is so easy to see; and conversely, why it's a bad idea to use light text on a light background.
  • Faces: Faces can have a powerful effect because they almost always attract attention. Faces are uniquely processed by the brain and have a high level of information interest. However, they can also be distracting elements by drawing disproportionate attention. If a face is featured on your sign, make sure it's not drawing attention away from something more important.

Considered alone, each factor is easy enough to understand. But in the real world, the challenge comes when all of these elements are put together. Any visual display will have a combination of a number of these factors, which can make it difficult to apply what you know to be most effective in creating a quality graphic.

To help navigate these challenges, 3M has developed the 3M Visual Attention Service (VAS), an online scanning tool that can be used to test the visual impact of a design and help designers increase the probability that viewers will notice the most important elements. The 3M VAS software analyzes the graphical and text elements of content and identifies where the average human eye is most likely to look in the first three to five seconds of viewing. The software processes the visual cues discussed above, revealing exactly which design elements are most likely to be viewed first, and also those which will not get noticed. (For a free trial, visit the VAS website)

To perform the analysis, users upload images to the 3M VAS web portal. Within about 20 seconds, the tool produces results in the form of easy-to-understand visual interest "heat maps" and selectable visual score patterns that offer detailed information. VAS analysis can be used to help add scientific weight to the recommendations you make to customers, presenting a factual analysis of a potential design.

As any designer knows, a sign or display has only a few seconds to get the viewer's attention and relay its message. Some knowledge of the basic principles behind use of color, shapes, edges, contrast and faces can help designers maximize those seconds to make the greatest impact. In addition, using 3M VAS can give a sign shop an extra edge in creating the most effective graphic solution. Apply these tools to help your work deliver maximum results for customers.