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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 www.presentations.com, 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:
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.