Friday, June 28, 2013

The 60,000 Times Faster Question

Image created using
Do graphics matter?

Over the years, many clients and colleagues have asked me this question. It’s my profession. It’s my passion. Of course, graphics matter to me more than most so I am arguably biased. Then how do I prove graphics improve communication and help users achieve their goals? Through professional experience, experimentation, and research—a lot of research.

I’ve cited many studies about the power of visual communication and wrote Do-It-Yourself Billion Dollar Graphics to break down the process for creating graphics into three easy steps. Now a few of those studies referenced in by book are in question. Several bloggers are pointing out flaws in this research and wondering at the accuracy of the results and numbers quoted.

One such study under the blogosphere’s microscope is the 3M and University of Minnesota School of Management findings that stated, “Presentations using visual aids were found to be 43% more persuasive than unaided presentations.” I first came across this study referenced in an article on, The Psychology of Presentation Visuals. I also saw this research quoted in various other articles about visual communication. A reputable company and university oversaw the study so I considered it safe to quote this paper in my book.

Then a client emailed me a link to medical and scientific illustrator Ikumi Kayama’s blog where she goes into detail over five very thoroughly written posts trying to understand how the researchers arrived at the 43% claim. In the end, Kayama couldn’t make sense of their logic. How the paper was written didn’t properly cite their evidence nor was it peered reviewed and their numbers and charts seemed off. None it of matched up to true scientific research of which she was very familiar in her field of work. She wondered if this paper was a veiled attempt at creating research to support the need for 3M’s new colored projectors (this study was done in 1986 when 3M was launching this product), and that it is merely a commercial touting research to support the superiority of using their product over the previous type of overhead or slide projectors.

Check out Kayama’s blog and download the original white paper here and come to your own conclusion.

Most scientific studies can be (and should be) questioned. I believe that all research should be reviewed and discussed. This doesn’t mean 3M manufactured these results. It could just be a poorly written white paper. Their reputation is on the line as well as those of us who have cited this study in our own research. I am grateful for Kayama's research into this matter, so I can be better informed regarding this statistic and become more diligent on looking into statistics before I use them in my materials.

Soon after discovering Kayama's blog, I learned about another statistic in question from yet another 3M study:

“Humans process visuals 60,000 times faster than text.”

Is it coincidence 3M is again part of this claim? I don’t know. What I do know is that several bloggers are searching for the science to back up this fact—and so far they haven’t had any luck. One blogger is Darren Kuropatwa. He did extensive research into this statistic and found it quoted in a presentation given by a Senior Product Specialist at 3M and then in a book about visual literacy by Dr. Lynell Burmark—which is where I first found the quote and used this reference in my book. (I even found it in a marketing flyer from 3M that references this statistic from "behavioral research" although the research is not cited.) From what Kurapotwa could discern, the 3M presenter had gotten the fact from elsewhere and possibly Dr. Burmark had quoted the statistic from this presentation since both the presentation and Dr. Burmark’s book are dated from 1998.

After this, the trail goes cold. Could it be that this research was never uploaded to the web for public knowledge? Or has this claim just been repeated so many times it has now become fact without any research to back it up?

Dr. Wesley Fryer, a commenter on Kurapatwa’s blog, said he took the statistic out of his citations after being questioned about it and finding out that it may be false. He now references traceable scientific studies in his writings and presentations that discuss the presence of more neurons connecting the eye to the brain than the ear to the brain. This fact can certainly support the assumption that images travel to the brain faster and are processed faster than only hearing words.

How much faster? Well, that remains to be proven. However, until we can find the research to support the 60,000 claim, I have taken it down from my website and out of my presentations. I will also be writing an addendum for my book explaining this claim being put on hold until the truth is determined.

At first, I was disheartened by the new findings proving that one fact was potentially biased and the other seems to be unfounded. Then I realized having these statistics on visuals questioned does not invalidate the power of visual communication. Don’t let a few questionable results dissuade you. The majority of research available is less biased. Check out books and articles by experts like Connie Malamed of the Understanding Graphics blog and author of Visual Language for Designers and Dr. Carmen Taran of Rexi Media, who shared her white paper results about her visual presentation experiment on our blog.

Decide for yourself what is most effective. For example, which item below more quickly communicates the answer to the question, "What is a circle?"

I recommend comparing visuals and text to uncover what works best for your audience. For example, a colleague, Rob Ransone (owner of Ransone Associates, Inc. and a Defense and Space Consultant) conducted an experiment at his local Toastmasters chapter. The following is his email to me:

I conducted a little experiment one night at Toastmasters when I gave the Educational Tidbit. I had compiled some statistics on Southern California drivers and presented this detailed information in my presentation. Without telling my audience, I had divided my presentation into three parts. During the first part I simply stated the statistics: “There are 6 million licensed drivers in Southern California.” In the second part, I emphasized the statistics: “In Southern California, 2 million of the drivers are either handicapped, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol – 2 million! 2 million drivers!” For the last part I showed them a chart with detailed statistics tabulated. I could see the puzzled expressions on their faces: “What has this got to do with Toastmasters?” After I finished my speech, I took down the chart and handed out a “pop quiz” that required them to answer specific questions on the statistics. I scored the answers and presented the results at the end of the meeting. Where I had only briefly mentioned the statistics, only 26% of the answers were correct. Where I had emphasized the statistics, 34% of the answers were correct. Where I had showed them a picture of the information, an incredible 86% of the answers were correct! I have since seen these same results from similar studies.
Image created using

All experimentation I have conducted during my workshops and my professional experience yield similar results. My team and I at Billion Dollar Graphics will continue to bring you the best information on graphics and design to help you succeed in our visual world. We apologize for not giving these statistics the stringent review that they required before adding them to our book and workshops. Please contact me at if you have any questions or any other studies you'd like to share on visual communications that I may add to our continual education on why graphics matter.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Albert Einstein—A Visual Genius

Photograph by Oren Jack Turner, Princeton, N.J.
(The Library of Congress) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
What causes someone to be a genius and make so many groundbreaking contributions to our world? This is the question scientists have tried to answer for several decades by exploring Albert Einstein's brainwell, actually, his stolen brain.

In the article Einstein's Brain Unlocks Some Mysteries of the Mind, author Jon Hamilton discusses why we even have Einstein's brain available for study nearly 60 years after his death. It is thanks to Thomas Harvey, a pathologist who performed the autopsy on Einstein after his death. He stole Einstein's brain before this genius was cremated, and no one would learn about his theft until 10 years later. Harvey believed he could crack the code for why Einstein was a genius. Not being a neurologist, Harvey realized he couldn't find the answer without help. Storing it at one point in a Tupperware container, Harvey began sending slivers of Einstein’s brain to scientists who had the means to study it more thoroughly.

In the 1980s, Dr. Marian Diamond at the University of California, Berkeley, asked for samples from four areas of his brain. Harvey sent the pieces to her by mail in a mayonnaise jar. Unlike many of her peers who believed neurons to be the most essential working cells of the brain, Dr. Diamond’s research focused on the glial cell, which means glue. At the time, most believed these were just the glue holding the brain together. Now many believe they help feed the neurons and increase communication between them. What Diamond found in Einstein’s brain is a high concentration of glial cells in the tissue involved in image and complex thinking.

Could Einstein have been a better visualizer than most?

As Molly Edmunds points out in How Albert Einstein's Brain Worked, Dr. Diamond’s work came under criticism for her research process since glial cells continually divide during a person’s life. Plus, the subjects to which she compared Einstein's brain to weren’t on par with his age or of a high IQ score.

Jimhutchins at en.wikipedia
Still searching for answers and still in possession of Einstein’s brain, Harvey contacted Dr. Sandra Witelson, a researcher at McMaster University, who was looking into the differences between men’s and women’s brains. Dr. Witelson agreed to study Einstein’s brain, and Harvey gave her a fifth of it. Because of her previous research, Dr. Witelson had years to acquire various types of brains, which she used to find 35 comparable male brains with an average IQ of 116 and 56 female brains. One odd element that stood out to her when inspecting this genius's brain was that the Sylvian fissure (lateral sulcus shown above right) was mostly absent. This fissure separates the parietal lobe into two compartments. Because Einstein’s brain had a smaller dividing line, his parietal lobe was 15 percent wider than average brains. What’s even more interesting (and how the story relates to this blog) is that we use our parietal lobe for math, spatial reasoning—and three-dimensional visualization.

As Edmunds points out, this fact is very telling when you understand that Einstein credits his major discovery to visualization: Einstein "...  figured out the theory of relativity by imagining a ride on a light beam through space ..." and "... saw his ideas in pictures and then found the language to describe them."
"Words do not seem to play any roles," Einstein said. "[There are] more or less clear images."  

His nearly non-existent Sylvian fissure is the current theory on why Einstein was a genius—until someone can visualize another, better theory. Maybe that is what it will take to crack Einstein’s thought process. A scientist who is able to "see" the answer.

So don’t be afraid to use graphics or images of your ideas and solutions. People will think that you’re pretty smart, since you’ll be using the same methods as Einstein.