The Principles of Psychology is a monumental text in the history of psychology, written by American psychologist William James and published in 1890. James was an American philosopher and psychologist who trained to be a physician before going into psychology. Known as “The Father of Psychology”, James also authored Essays in Radical Empiricism, important in philosophy, and The Varieties of Religious Experience, which led to understanding the differences of religious experience that helped build theories of mind cure.
That said, what can James tell us to make our Infographics better? Plenty. Here’s five things:
1 – Use the Stream of Consciousness
Our minds flow linearly – but we think non-linearly. So while our stream of consciousness flows from one thing to the next – what those things are may not necessarily be linearly connected. Great infographics understand that idea and thus present clearly (and simply) a bunch of related ideas and facts that are in support of one key idea. While the information is non-linear, the conclusion is linearly presented – but the visual connection of the dots is made by the viewer in his mind.
Here’s an exceptional example about visualizing the mortality and impact of viruses/bacteria in history.
Your eyes and your thought processes undoubtedly bounced around. Now, there are lots of really great design elements to this piece, which isn’t the subject of this post (we’re going to get to it in another post – patience), but your eyes undoubtedly popped around “smallpox” then “Measles” then “Spanish Flu” and you scanned around, and across, and thought about various things. You spent probably more time looking at this infographic than you normally would the typical “straight down” infographic we see most often (here’s an example of a particularly horrendous linear infographic my view).
James described the “stream of consciousness” as a narrative mode, or device, that seeks “to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind. Another term for it is ‘interior monologue’.” The little conversations we have in our heads, as we look and experience life, are considerably more entertaining to us than anything we’re attempted to be force fed.
Consider the most successful “stream of consciousness” device that launched a multi-billion dollar business – Facebook. Your Facebook feed is nothing but intermixing streams of consciousness between you and your friends. It tells a narrative story.
Use that fact when designing your infographics.
2 – I feel way before I think
We really have two brains (well three actually but put that aside for a moment). The first brain is our reptile brain – the limbic brain. The second brain is the mammalian brain – our cognitive brain. The limbic brain are structures of our oldest ancestors. It controls, among other things, emotion.
That’s why when that cute guy, or girl, walks into the room – you stop talking. It’s why when you saw that person who would become your significant other, you didn’t talk (the limbic brain doesn’t control language, that’s why we have such a hard time putting into words and descriptions how we feel). The limbic brain can hijack the rest of the thinking and go “yeah I don’t care what we’re doing – pay attention to this.”
Now for a long time – that was important. When man was running around trying to basically accomplish three things – have sex, find food, not get killed – the limbic brain was pretty useful. While we’re not necessarily preoccupied with only those three things primarily – the limbic system does manage a lot of our daily activities, even when we’re not aware of it.
The British “Mad Man” Robin Wight said something I considered to be rather profound – we are not rational creatures, we are rationalizing creatures. What he meant by that remark was, of course – we emote first, we think second. What Robin Wight has been saying all these years (about two decades now) is that appeal to heart and then the head (something that DDB also has as part of its methodology in developing advertising).
Consider this infographic about birthdays:
Non-linear? Yes… absolutely. Make me feel then think? Absolutely. Where did you look first? Well your own birthday of course! And then what did you do? Scanned around the chart to understand. This chart is monochromatic simplistic and non-linear. But it drew you in with its simplicity and its simple message – how popular is YOUR birthday. You felt before you thought.
Want to catch my attention and talk to me with an infographic – make me feel, then make me think. A great infographic is an instant revelation. It can compress time and space. It can illuminate patterns in massive amounts of data. It can make the abstract convincingly concrete. Infographics have an emotional power because they can show you an idea — or a relationship, or how something works — very quickly. A persuasive infographic surprises the viewer. It moves them in some way and makes them want to keep looking at it or show it to other people.
Remember – we are rationalizing creatures.
3 – People are stimulated by an environment which is interesting, varying, changing.
The most compelling infographics mine relationships among overlooked variables to tell you something unexpected and get you thinking. The least effective confuse you (the food pyramid), overwhelm you with data (nutrition labels), or are just plain boring.
This is why great infographics are so hard – they require tremendous creativity. Creativity is the ability to see new linkages and connections that others don’t readily see. The creatives are rewarded for making those things obvious to everyone. Thus, if you want to make something stimulating – you need to use creativity to make it intriguing. But, let’s talk why the variety makes us pay attention.
In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter—a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells. The brain includes several distinct dopamine systems, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. Dopamine is why we try to find food before we’re starving, why we build shelters before it’s raining, and why you get that little rush of “YES” when you cross something off your to-do list.
Dopamine also changes how you remember events. The reason why when you had that great victory in your life, that you remember like it was yesterday, is because of dopamine. That first time you had sex – yep, dopamine. That first time you ate your favorite food – dopamine. Birth of your children – dopamine. It cements our memories in a way that few other brain chemicals do.
To trigger dopamine in the brain, visual stimulus needs to do the following:
- Don’t make your presentation like everyone else.
- The infographic’s “ah ha!” moment needs to be just that – ah ha.
In short, the infographic needs to be novel in the approach and present the information in a way that makes the brain go “ooooh!”
Not to beat up on Neal Patel at KISSMetrics – but here’s a horrendous infographic. The entire infographic is supposed to be about color, and it winds up being the most bland thing imaginable.
And here’s the same graphic after we got done playing with it:
Which one got your juices going?
4 – We have a fundamental need for a sense of control
Perhaps the deepest need people have is for a sense of control. When we feel out of control, we experience a powerful and uncomfortable tension between the need for control and the evidence of inadequate control. Note that the need is for ‘a sense of control’, not just for ‘control’. This need around how we feel about control is much deeper and has a wider scope than just seeking power and the control it brings.
This is how 99% of the infographic world would make a graphic about how to be happy:
And this is how someone who is a genius at understanding how to ground information to the need for a sense of control and balance does it:
See the difference in understanding and appeal once you give me some control? (It’s also why you want your graphics to be non-linear most of the time – but this graphic is brilliantly linear).
5 – Anchor Me – I’ll get the idea a lot faster if you do
This infographic breaks a lot of our rules… except one. It anchors what I know about Diet Coke, to what I don’t know about Diet Coke. As a consequence, this simple infographic by the “Renegade Pharmacist” burned up twitter and Facebook repeatedly.