How Good Graphic Design Creates Meaning In The Human Brain

The brain is wired for graphic design. Throughout human evolutionary history our brains have developed to react to visual stimuli. Knowing how the brain interprets visual information can greatly assist communicators in getting their message across effectively.

We’ve previously learned how good design makes you happy. Now let’s learn how good design creates meaning.

Tom Wujec, a Fellow at Autodesk, is an innovator in using visualization to solve problems and understand ideas. In a recently released TED speech Wujec talks on the 3 ways that the brain creates meaning.

First the eyes gather surrounding light and send that information to the primary cortex. The primary cortex sees only basic shapes and then sends the information to the other parts of the brain. There are many other parts that help to create meaning. Three of the most important are the ventral stream, the dorsal stream, and the limbic system.

Ventral Stream – The What
The ventral stream recognizes what something is. This is a hand, That is a ball and so forth. It’s how we identify the world around us.

Graphic design is quite often a visual translation of an existing object into a basic shape; think icons. These basic shapes are then more easily understood by the ventral stream.

Dorsal Stream – The Where
The dorsal stream locates objects in physical body space. A mental map if you will. It’s how we engage with the world around us.

Usually a design is more than just one icon. It may be several icons, photography, typography, color, and shapes put together into one visual landscape. This creates an interaction of forms for the brain to mentally navigate in the dorsal stream.

Limbic System – The Feeling
The limbic system is the “gut” center, characterized by an emotional reaction. It’s how we feel about the world around us. It’s also utilized in long term memory.

Colors, movement, smooth curves, precise lines – essentially aesthetic beauty – will create a positive reaction in the limbic system. Seeing something again and again will help to retain a memory in this area of the brain.

Good Design and The Human Brain - Diagram

We can now begin to see how good graphic design works in the context of the human mind. When the processing centers in the brain all understand the visual information and come to a positive consensus then the message is understood and the design is successful.

Combine these three factors with a persistence of imagery to augment memory and we are well on our way to use our understanding of the human mind to create successful visual communications.

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