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Design principles for visual communication

By Kyle Skidmore

Agrawala, M., Li, W., & Berthouzoz, F. (2011). Design principles for visual communication. Communications of the ACM Commun. ACM, 54(4), 60.

Maneesh Agrawala, an associate professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California in Berkeley, and Floraine Berthouzoz, a Ph.D. candidate in the same field, as well as industry expert from Adobe Systems Inc. in San Francisco, California, agree that no specific formula exists to guarantee that a particular visual communication is effective. But through a series of user experiments, they come up with a three-stage process that contributes to effective visual design. The process includes identifying design principles, instantiating design principles, and lastly evaluating design principles. The purpose of design principles is to “connect the visual design of a visualization with the viewer’s perception and cognition of the underlying information the visualization is meant to convey.” One example the authors give of this is an exploded view of a mechanical system. Instantiating design principles involves coming up with a set of design criteria that is appropriate for the type of visual and applying this algorithm to similar visual designs. For example, a certain aspect ratio can be selected for an image intended to be displayed on a computer’s desktop. Once the design principles are determined, they need to be evaluated.

The overall visual effectiveness can be assessed by coming up with a set of evaluative criteria. The criteria can differ substantially and is based upon the type of visual being tested. One example given is the time is takes individuals to assemble the same piece of furniture given different instruction manuals. Qualitative interviews and quantitative usage statistics can also be very helpful information to use when designing and refining visual communication. One is not necessarily better than the other, but each provide their own advantages and disadvantages. Usage statistics are an indirect method of testing visuals but provide a lot of quantifiable data. On the other hand, user interviews are more difficult to setup but offer more qualitative feedback. The authors define a good visual designer as one who is able to manipulate the perception, cognition, and communicative intent of the audience.