Visual Representation

Your constantly-updated definition of Visual Representation and collection of videos and articles
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What is Visual Representation?

Visual Representation refers to the principles by which markings on a surface are made and interpreted. Designers use representations like typography and illustrations to communicate information, emotions and concepts. Color, imagery, typography and layout are crucial in this communication.

Alan Blackwell, cognition scientist and professor, gives a brief introduction to visual representation:

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We can see visual representation throughout human history, from cave drawings to data visualization:

  • Art uses visual representation to express emotions and abstract ideas.

  • Financial forecasting graphs condense data and research into a more straightforward format.

  • Icons on user interfaces (UI) represent different actions users can take.

  • The color of a notification indicates its nature and meaning.

A painting of an abstract night sky over a village, with a tree in the foreground.

Van Gogh's "The Starry Night" uses visuals to evoke deep emotions, representing an abstract, dreamy night sky. It exemplifies how art can communicate complex feelings and ideas.

© Public domain

Importance of Visual Representation in Design

Designers use visual representation for internal and external use throughout the design process. For example:

  • Storyboards are illustrations that outline users’ actions and where they perform them.

  • Sitemaps are diagrams that show the hierarchy and navigation structure of a website.

  • Wireframes are sketches that bring together elements of a user interface's structure.

  • Usability reports use graphs and charts to communicate data gathered from usability testing.

  • User interfaces visually represent information contained in applications and computerized devices.

A sample usability report that shows a few statistics, a bell curve and a donut chart.

This usability report is straightforward to understand. Yet, the data behind the visualizations could come from thousands of answered surveys.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Visual representation simplifies complex ideas and data and makes them easy to understand. Without these visual aids, designers would struggle to communicate their ideas, findings and products. For example, it would be easier to create a mockup of an e-commerce website interface than to describe it with words.

A side-by-side comparison of a simple mockup, and a very verbose description of the same mockup. A developer understands the simple one, and is confused by the verbose one.

Visual representation simplifies the communication of designs. Without mockups, it would be difficult for developers to reproduce designs using words alone.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Types of Visual Representation

Below are some of the most common forms of visual representation designers use.

Text and Typography

Text represents language and ideas through written characters and symbols. Readers visually perceive and interpret these characters. Typography turns text into a visual form, influencing its perception and interpretation.

We have developed the conventions of typography over centuries, for example, in documents, newspapers and magazines. These conventions include:

  • Text arranged on a grid brings clarity and structure. Gridded text makes complex information easier to navigate and understand. Tables, columns and other formats help organize content logically and enhance readability.

  • Contrasting text sizes create a visual hierarchy and draw attention to critical areas. For example, headings use larger text while body copy uses smaller text. This contrast helps readers distinguish between primary and secondary information.

  • Adequate spacing and paragraphing improve the readability and appearance of the text. These conventions prevent the content from appearing cluttered. Spacing and paragraphing make it easier for the eye to follow and for the brain to process the information.

  • Balanced image-to-text ratios create engaging layouts. Images break the monotony of text, provide visual relief and illustrate or emphasize points made in the text. A well-planned ratio ensures neither text nor images overwhelm each other. Effective ratios make designs more effective and appealing.

Designers use these conventions because people are familiar with them and better understand text presented in this manner.

A table of names and numbers indicating the funerals of victims of the plague in London in 1665.

This table of funerals from the plague in London in 1665 uses typographic conventions still used today. For example, the author arranged the information in a table and used contrasting text styling to highlight information in the header.

© Public domain

Illustrations and Drawings

Designers use illustrations and drawings independently or alongside text. An example of illustration used to communicate information is the assembly instructions created by furniture retailer IKEA. If IKEA used text instead of illustrations in their instructions, people would find it harder to assemble the furniture.

A diagram showing how to assemble a chest of drawers from furniture retailer IKEA.

IKEA assembly instructions use illustrations to inform customers how to build their furniture. The only text used is numeric to denote step and part numbers. IKEA communicates this information visually to: 1. Enable simple communication, 2. Ensure their instructions are easy to follow, regardless of the customer’s language.

© IKEA, Fair use

Illustrations and drawings can often convey the core message of a visual representation more effectively than a photograph. They focus on the core message, while a photograph might distract a viewer with additional details (such as who this person is, where they are from, etc.)

For example, in IKEA’s case, photographing a person building a piece of furniture might be complicated. Further, photographs may not be easy to understand in a black-and-white print, leading to higher printing costs. To be useful, the pictures would also need to be larger and would occupy more space on a printed manual, further adding to the costs.

But imagine a girl winking—this is something we can easily photograph. 

Ivan Sutherland, creator of the first graphical user interface, used his computer program Sketchpad to draw a winking girl. While not realistic, Sutherland's representation effectively portrays a winking girl. The drawing's abstract, generic elements contrast with the distinct winking eye. The graphical conventions of lines and shapes represent the eyes and mouth. The simplicity of the drawing does not draw attention away from the winking.

A simple illustration of a winking girl next to a photograph of a winking girl.

A photo might distract from the focused message compared to Sutherland's representation. In the photo, the other aspects of the image (i.e., the particular person) distract the viewer from this message.

© Ivan Sutherland, CC BY-SA 3.0 and Amina Filkins, Pexels License

Information and Data Visualization

Designers and other stakeholders use data and information visualization across many industries.

Data visualization uses charts and graphs to show raw data in a graphic form. Information visualization goes further, including more context and complex data sets. Information visualization often uses interactive elements to share a deeper understanding.

For example, most computerized devices have a battery level indicator. This is a type of data visualization. IV takes this further by allowing you to click on the battery indicator for further insights. These insights may include the apps that use the most battery and the last time you charged your device.

A simple battery level icon next to a screenshot of a battery information dashboard.

macOS displays a battery icon in the menu bar that visualizes your device’s battery level. This is an example of data visualization. Meanwhile, macOS’s settings tell you battery level over time, screen-on-usage and when you last charged your device. These insights are actionable; users may notice their battery drains at a specific time. This is an example of information visualization.

© Low Battery by Jemis Mali, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0, and Apple, Fair use

Information visualization is not exclusive to numeric data. It encompasses representations like diagrams and maps. For example, Google Maps collates various types of data and information into one interface:

  • Data Representation: Google Maps transforms complex geographical data into an easily understandable and navigable visual map.

  • Interactivity: Users can interactively customize views that show traffic, satellite imagery and more in real-time.

  • Layered Information: Google Maps layers multiple data types (e.g., traffic, weather) over geographical maps for comprehensive visualization.

  • User-Centered Design: The interface is intuitive and user-friendly, with symbols and colors for straightforward data interpretation.

A screenshot of Google Maps showing the Design Museum in London, UK. On the left is a profile of the location, on the right is the map.

The volume of data contained in one screenshot of Google Maps is massive. However, this information is presented clearly to the user. Google Maps highlights different terrains with colors and local places and businesses with icons and colors. The panel on the left lists the selected location’s profile, which includes an image, rating and contact information.

© Google, Fair use

Symbolic Correspondence

Symbolic correspondence uses universally recognized symbols and signs to convey specific meanings. This method employs widely recognized visual cues for immediate understanding. Symbolic correspondence removes the need for textual explanation.

For instance, a magnifying glass icon in UI design signifies the search function. Similarly, in environmental design, symbols for restrooms, parking and amenities guide visitors effectively.

A screenshot of the homepage Interaction Design Foundation website. Across the top is a menu bar. Beneath the menu bar is a header image with a call to action.

The Interaction Design Foundation (IxDF) website uses the universal magnifying glass symbol to signify the search function. Similarly, the play icon draws attention to a link to watch a video.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

How Designers Create Visual Representations

Visual Language

Designers use elements like color, shape and texture to create a communicative visual experience. Designers use these 8 principles:

  • Size – Larger elements tend to capture users' attention readily.

  • Color – Users are typically drawn to bright colors over muted shades.

  • Contrast – Colors with stark contrasts catch the eye more effectively.

  • Alignment – Unaligned elements are more noticeable than those aligned ones.

  • Repetition – Similar styles repeated imply a relationship in content.

  • Proximity – Elements placed near each other appear to be connected.

  • Whitespace – Elements surrounded by ample space attract the eye.

  • Texture and Style – Users often notice richer textures before flat designs.

The 8 visual design principles.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

In web design, visual hierarchy uses color and repetition to direct the user's attention. Color choice is crucial as it creates contrast between different elements. Repetition helps to organize the design—it uses recurring elements to establish consistency and familiarity.

In this video, Alan Dix, Professor and Expert in Human-Computer Interaction, explains how visual alignment affects how we read and absorb information:

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Correspondence Techniques

Designers use correspondence techniques to align visual elements with their conceptual meanings. These techniques include color coding, spatial arrangement and specific imagery. In information visualization, different colors can represent various data sets. This correspondence aids users in quickly identifying trends and relationships.

Two pie charts showing user satisfaction. One visualizes data 1 day after release, and the other 1 month after release. The colors are consistent between both charts, but the segment sizes are different.

Color coding enables the stakeholder to see the relationship and trend between the two pie charts easily.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

In user interface design, correspondence techniques link elements with meaning. An example is color-coding notifications to state their nature. For instance, red for warnings and green for confirmation. These techniques are informative and intuitive and enhance the user experience.

A screenshot of an Interaction Design Foundation course page. It features information about the course and a video. Beneath this is a pop-up asking the user if they want to drop this course.

The IxDF website uses blue for call-to-actions (CTAs) and red for warnings. These colors inform the user of the nature of the action of buttons and other interactive elements.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Perception and Interpretation

If visual language is how designers create representations, then visual perception and interpretation are how users receive those representations. Consider a painting—the viewer’s eyes take in colors, shapes and lines, and the brain perceives these visual elements as a painting.

In this video, Alan Dix explains how the interplay of sensation, perception and culture is crucial to understanding visual experiences in design:

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Video copyright info

Copyright holder: Michael Murphy _ Appearance time: 07:19 - 07:37 _ Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C67JuZnBBDc

Perception

Visual perception principles are essential for creating compelling, engaging visual representations. For example, Gestalt principles explain how we perceive visual information. These rules describe how we group similar items, spot patterns and simplify complex images. Designers apply Gestalt principles to arrange content on websites and other interfaces. This application creates visually appealing and easily understood designs.

In this video, design expert and teacher Mia Cinelli discusses the significance of Gestalt principles in visual design. She introduces fundamental principles, like figure/ground relationships, similarity and proximity.

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Interpretation

Everyone's experiences, culture and physical abilities dictate how they interpret visual representations. For this reason, designers carefully consider how users interpret their visual representations. They employ user research and testing to ensure their designs are attractive and functional.

A painting of a woman sitting and looking straight at the viewer. Her expression is difficult to read.

Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa", is one of the most famous paintings in the world. The piece is renowned for its subject's enigmatic expression. Some interpret her smile as content and serene, while others see it as sad or mischievous. Not everyone interprets this visual representation in the same way.

© Public domain

Color is an excellent example of how one person, compared to another, may interpret a visual element. Take the color red:

  • In Chinese culture, red symbolizes luck, while in some parts of Africa, it can mean death or illness.

  • A personal experience may mean a user has a negative or positive connotation with red.

  • People with protanopia and deuteranopia color blindness cannot distinguish between red and green.

In this video, Joann and Arielle Eckstut, leading color consultants and authors, explain how many factors influence how we perceive and interpret color:

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Learn More about Visual Representation

Read Alan Blackwell’s chapter on visual representation from The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction.

Learn about the F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content from Jakob Nielsen.

Read Smashing Magazine’s article, Visual Design Language: The Building Blocks Of Design.

Take the IxDF’s course, Perception and Memory in HCI and UX.

Questions related to Visual Representation

What are some highly cited scientific research about visual representation?

Some highly cited research on visual representation and related topics includes:

Roland, P. E., & Gulyás, B. (1994). Visual imagery and visual representation. Trends in Neurosciences, 17(7), 281-287.
Roland and Gulyás' study explores how the brain creates visual imagination. They look at whether imagining things like objects and scenes uses the same parts of the brain as seeing them does. Their research shows the brain uses certain areas specifically for imagination. These areas are different from the areas used for seeing. This research is essential for understanding how our brain works with vision.

Lurie, N. H., & Mason, C. H. (2007). Visual Representation: Implications for Decision Making. Journal of Marketing, 71(1), 160-177.

This article looks at how visualization tools help in understanding complicated marketing data. It discusses how these tools affect decision-making in marketing. The article gives a detailed method to assess the impact of visuals on the study and combination of vast quantities of marketing data. It explores the benefits and possible biases visuals can bring to marketing choices. These factors make the article an essential resource for researchers and marketing experts. The article suggests using visual tools and detailed analysis together for the best results.

Lohse, G. L., Biolsi, K., Walker, N., & Rueter, H. H. (1994, December). A classification of visual representations. Communications of the ACM, 37(12), 36+.

This publication looks at how visuals help communicate and make information easier to understand. It divides these visuals into six types: graphs, tables, maps, diagrams, networks and icons. The article also looks at different ways these visuals share information effectively.

​​If you’d like to cite content from the IxDF website, click the ‘cite this article’ button near the top of your screen.

What are some recommended books on visual representation?

Some recommended books on visual representation and related topics include:

Chaplin, E. (1994). Sociology and Visual Representation (1st ed.). Routledge.

Chaplin's book describes how visual art analysis has changed from ancient times to today. It shows how photography, post-modernism and feminism have changed how we see art. The book combines words and images in its analysis and looks into real-life social sciences studies.

Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994). Picture Theory. The University of Chicago Press.

Mitchell's book explores the important role and meaning of pictures in the late twentieth century. It discusses the change from focusing on language to focusing on images in cultural studies. The book deeply examines the interaction between images and text in different cultural forms like literature, art and media. This detailed study of how we see and read visual representations has become an essential reference for scholars and professionals.

Koffka, K. (1935). Principles of Gestalt Psychology. Harcourt, Brace & World.

"Principles of Gestalt Psychology" by Koffka, released in 1935, is a critical book in its field. It's known as a foundational work in Gestalt psychology, laying out the basic ideas of the theory and how they apply to how we see and think. Koffka's thorough study of Gestalt psychology's principles has profoundly influenced how we understand human perception. This book has been a significant reference in later research and writings.

What is an example of visual representation?

A visual representation, like an infographic or chart, uses visual elements to show information or data. These types of visuals make complicated information easier to understand and more user-friendly.

Designers harness visual representations in design and communication. Infographics and charts, for instance, distill data for easier audience comprehension and retention.

For an introduction to designing basic information visualizations, take our course, Information Visualization.

Is text a visual representation?

Text is a crucial design and communication element, transforming language visually. Designers use font style, size, color and layout to convey emotions and messages effectively.

Designers utilize text for both literal communication and aesthetic enhancement. Their typography choices significantly impact design aesthetics, user experience and readability.

Designers should always consider text's visual impact in their designs. This consideration includes font choice, placement, color and interaction with other design elements.

In this video, design expert and teacher Mia Cinelli teaches how Gestalt principles apply to typography:

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What is visual representation in design?

Designers use visual elements in projects to convey information, ideas, and messages. Designers use images, colors, shapes and typography for impactful designs.

In UI/UX design, visual representation is vital. Icons, buttons and colors provide contrast for intuitive, user-friendly website and app interfaces.

Graphic design leverages visual representation to create attention-grabbing marketing materials. Careful color, imagery and layout choices create an emotional connection.

Product design relies on visual representation for prototyping and idea presentation. Designers and stakeholders use visual representations to envision functional, aesthetically pleasing products.

Our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than text. This fact highlights the crucial role of visual representation in design.

Our course, Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide, teaches you how to use visual design elements and principles in your work effectively.

How does visual representation impact user experience (UX)?

Visual representation, crucial in UX, facilitates interaction, comprehension and emotion. It combines elements like images and typography for better interfaces.

Effective visuals guide users, highlight features and improve navigation. Icons and color schemes communicate functions and set interaction tones.

UX design research shows visual elements significantly impact emotions. 90% of brain-transmitted information is visual.

To create functional, accessible visuals, designers use color contrast and consistent iconography. These elements improve readability and inclusivity.

An excellent example of visual representation in UX is Apple's iOS interface. iOS combines a clean, minimalist design with intuitive navigation. As a result, the operating system is both visually appealing and user-friendly.

Michal Malewicz, Creative Director and CEO at Hype4, explains why visual skills are important in design:

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Learn more about UI design from Michal in our Master Class, Beyond Interfaces: The UI Design Skills You Need to Know.

What are the key principles of effective visual representation?

The fundamental principles of effective visual representation are:

  • Clarity: Designers convey messages clearly, avoiding clutter.

  • Simplicity: Embrace simple designs for ease and recall.

  • Emphasis: Designers highlight key elements distinctively.

  • Balance: Balance ensures design stability and structure.

  • Alignment: Designers enhance coherence through alignment.

  • Contrast: Use contrast for dynamic, distinct designs.

  • Repetition: Repeating elements unify and guide designs.

Designers practice these principles in their projects. They also analyze successful designs and seek feedback to improve their skills.

Read our topic description of Gestalt principles to learn more about creating effective visual designs. The Gestalt principles explain how humans group elements, recognize patterns and simplify object perception.

How can color theory be applied in visual representation?

Color theory is vital in design, helping designers craft visually appealing and compelling works. Designers understand color interactions, psychological impacts and symbolism. These elements help designers enhance communication and guide attention.

Designers use complementary, analogous and triadic colors for contrast, harmony and balance. Understanding color temperature also plays a crucial role in design perception.

Color symbolism is crucial, as different colors can represent specific emotions and messages. For instance, blue can symbolize trust and calmness, while red can indicate energy and urgency.

Cultural variations significantly influence color perception and symbolism. Designers consider these differences to ensure their designs resonate with diverse audiences.

For actionable insights, designers should:

  • Experiment with color schemes for effective messaging. 

  • Assess colors' psychological impact on the audience. 

  • Use color contrast to highlight critical elements. 

  • Ensure color choices are accessible to all.

In this video, Joann and Arielle Eckstut, leading color consultants and authors, give their six tips for choosing color:

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Learn more about color from Joann and Arielle in our Master Class, How To Use Color Theory To Enhance Your Designs.

What role do typography and font choice play in visual representation?

Typography and font choice are crucial in design, impacting readability and mood. Designers utilize them for effective communication and expression.

Designers' perception of information varies with font type. Serif fonts can imply formality, while sans-serifs can give a more modern look.

Typography choices by designers influence readability and user experience. Well-spaced, distinct fonts enhance readability, whereas decorative fonts may hinder it.

Designers use typography to evoke emotions and set a design's tone. Choices in font size, style and color affect the emotional impact and message clarity.

Designers use typography to direct attention, create hierarchy and establish rhythm. These benefits help with brand recognition and consistency across mediums.

Read our article to learn how web fonts are critical to the online user experience.

How to balance simplicity and complexity in visual representation?

Designers create a balance between simplicity and complexity in their work. They focus on the main messages and highlight important parts. Designers use the principles of visual hierarchy, like size, color and spacing. They also use empty space to make their designs clear and understandable.

The Gestalt law of Prägnanz suggests people naturally simplify complex images. This principle aids in making even intricate information accessible and engaging.

Through iteration and feedback, designers refine visuals. They remove extraneous elements and highlight vital information. Testing with the target audience ensures the design resonates and is comprehensible.

Michal Malewicz explains how to master hierarchy in UI design using the Gestalt rule of proximity:

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Literature on Visual Representation

Here’s the entire UX literature on Visual Representation by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Visual Representation

Take a deep dive into Visual Representation with our course Perception and Memory in HCI and UX .

How does all of this fit with interaction design and user experience? The simple answer is that most of our understanding of human experience comes from our own experiences and just being ourselves. That might extend to people like us, but it gives us no real grasp of the whole range of human experience and abilities. By considering more closely how humans perceive and interact with our world, we can gain real insights into what designs will work for a broader audience: those younger or older than us, more or less capable, more or less skilled and so on.

“You can design for all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot design for all the people all the time.“
– William Hudson (with apologies to Abraham Lincoln)

While “design for all of the people all of the time” is an impossible goal, understanding how the human machine operates is essential to getting ever closer. And of course, building solutions for people with a wide range of abilities, including those with accessibility issues, involves knowing how and why some human faculties fail. As our course tutor, Professor Alan Dix, points out, this is not only a moral duty but, in most countries, also a legal obligation.

Portfolio Project

In the “Build Your Portfolio: Perception and Memory Project”, you’ll find a series of practical exercises that will give you first-hand experience in applying what we’ll cover. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you’ll create a series of case studies for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.

This in-depth, video-based course is created with the amazing Alan Dix, the co-author of the internationally best-selling textbook Human-Computer Interaction and a superstar in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. Alan is currently a professor and Director of the Computational Foundry at Swansea University.

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