As you are reading this sentence, your eyes are moving naturally from the left to the right. Instinctually. Without stopping to think about it, your eyes move. But in what way, and why?

There are many theories for why our eyes move most naturally from left to right. In his book, Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story, Jerry Weissman covers a few. Some say it’s because in a society where most people are right-handed we are more attuned to things on the right side of our vision. Others think it could be traced to the natural movement of the sun from left to right. Still others venture to guess that it is reinforced in the way we learn to read in the West, from left to right.

Whatever the reason, it’s helpful to for us to understand more about the natural movement of the human eye because when we understand how our eyes move, we can design better presentation media.

How Our Eyes Work

Our eyes move in 4 basic ways, but the one we are most concerned with is the movement referred to as saccades. These are “rapid, ballistic movements of the eyes that abruptly change the point of fixation. They range in amplitude from the small movements made while reading, for example, to the much larger movements made while gazing around a room.” These eye movements are made quickly, about 2 to 3 jumps or darts per second. We use these jumps as a way to explore the environment and to quickly decide where to focus. After we’ve used saccades to decide what deserves our attention, we then move into a slower information-extraction mode.

Audience Reflexive Patterns

Most audience members will use saccadic eye movement to gather information quickly in a predictable pattern. They will start at the left side of the screen and move to the right. However, depending on the audience you are speaking to and the topic you are covering, there could be some difference in vertical eye movement.

In business settings, most audiences prefer to start in the lower left corner of a screen while moving their eyes up and to the right. Weissman says this is because those in the business world are accustomed to “following the desired growth pattern of revenue and profits symbolized” by that type of direction. Up and to the left means good things: growth, profit, increase. If you are communicating ideas to a business crowd, be aware that their eyes might instinctually start at the lower left corner.

In more creative settings, consider designing slides that follow eye movement from the upper left corner to the lower right one. Weissman says, “most painters organize their pictures based on eye movement down and to the right. That is why, more often than not, artists sign their canvases in the lower-right corner.” Creatives will then most likely start at the upper left and sweep down to take in the needed information.

Introducing Motion

These standard eye patterns are pretty predictable. Well, that is, until you introduce motion. In one experiment, researchers found that in still pictures, people tend to look for contrast and tend to focus on the corners of image, following the reflexive patterns we just talked about. But when motion is introduced, “viewers look at things that are moving, and at things that are going from light to dark or from dark to light . . . In particular, the eyes follow new motion that could reveal something that you need to deal with in a hurry – an object falling or an animal on the move.” So design your slides in a way that follows the reflexive pattern of left to right, unless you have motion. At that point, use the motion to direct where you want your audience to look, because motion interrupts natural eye movement and draws instant attention.

You’ll sound incredibly cool when you work terms like saccadic eye moment, reflexive eye patterns, and motion interruption into your vocabulary. But even more important than impressing your coworkers or your boss, you’ll be able to design better slides for your audience because you know the science behind how their eyes move when they look at those slides.

At Ethos3, all of our design and presentation methods are backed by science. Ready to learn more?

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