Contrast has been an important part of visual design theory for a long time. But research from Thomas Sanocki and Noah Sulman of the University of South Florida proves that contrast isn’t always the best answer, especially when it comes to our memory.

Sanock and Sulman set out to see how the use of spatial layouts involving similar (harmonious) or dissimilar (unharmonious) colors affected human memory. What they uncovered in their research has the potential to change the way we do presentation design.

What is VSTM?

This particular study was concerned with studying VSTM, or visual short-term memory. Sanocki and Sulman define it like this, “VSTM is the medium for storing and manipulating visual and spatial information in mind.” But I especially like the way Weiwei Zhang and Steven J. Luck explain it in their article, “Sudden Death and Gradual Decay in Visual Working Memory.” They say, “Although the brain stores some memories for a lifetime, it also maintains temporary, disposable, scratch-pad memories that serve a variety of complex cognitive tasks.” When we give presentations, unfortunately most of the images we use fall into that temporary and disposable category of memories. But we can use these research-based design tips to help us create images and graphics that stick.

How Does Space Affect our VSTM?

You may have heard of the memory palace concept. It comes from a story told by Cicero which goes something like this. The poet Simonides of Ceos was invited to perform a poem at a banquet. When he leaves the banquet hall to receive a message, the roof collapses, crushing the men inside beyond recognition. However, Simonides is able to identify the bodies based on his visual remembrance of where the men had been sitting. This story illustrates how powerful our VSTM really is.

I can attest to it in my own experience. Years after a student has graduated from my class, I can tell you the exactly where that student sat. I may not remember his or her name, but because I saw that student sitting in the same chair, week after week, it imprinted on my memory.

Here’s what the research tells us. Our VSTM can hold many of the details of an image, like a picture of a room. It can also hold a pattern with up to 17 units. But the key to increasing the capacity of memory lies in the relation between the elements of the image. Studies show that when the elements of the image are related by space (vertically or horizontally), we can remember that image better. When designing presentation media, keep in mind spatial arrangement. When there is a clear vertical or horizontal pattern, you increase your audience’s ability to remember it.

How Does Color Affect Our VSTM?

I said earlier that contrast is an important element in visual design. It’s true. It works wonders to get our attention. But when it comes to helping us remember things, it might not be the best strategy. At least not when it comes to images.

Sanocki and Sulman discovered that colors which are similar or harmonious can be grouped together into less units in our memory, allowing space for other visual elements to be remembered. However, when we pack an image with lots of contrast, the brain registers those as separate elements. Think of it as decreased bandwidth.

In their first experiment, the researchers found a 26% gain in capacity with similar-color presentations. In another experiment, the researchers found that when the number of similar colors presented were reduced, memory capacity increased as much as 45%. “The results imply that people can integrate and retain much more information from displays of similar colors than from displays of dissimilar colors, as much as 45% more when palette size is reduced.”

The researchers were careful to note that their findings don’t mean that contrast has no place in design. That’s not the case at all. They say “color dissimilarity may be important for segregating selected information, creating color dominance, or creating tension.”

As this research shows, space and color directly affect our visual short-term memory capacity. When we arrange images in vertical and horizontal formats and when we use just a few similar colors, we create more room for our brains to do their work of remembering what we see.

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