proximity-1do83hlProximity in design helps to indicate relationships and make connections for a user. By having text and corresponding visuals close together there leaves little room for misinterpretation of the details.

When designing websites or marketing pieces the rule of having things close together that are related may not always be followed; this can work to an advertisers benefit by using two different things juxtaposed to convey a message or attract attention.  On the other hand, having two things close together that are not related can also serve to confuse readers or users.  This confusion or misinterpretation occurs due to splitting a viewer’s attention.  This can be seen particularly with e-learning modules or multimedia presentations.

“Gestalt psychologists described several principles people use to make sense of what they see. These principles include figure and ground, proximity, closure, similarity, continuity, and simplicity.”[1]  While these explain why we see what we see, they also relate to design principles to help with creating pieces that will be well-received, used, and interpreted correctly.

Besides cognition, sensory stimuli and perception, behaviour and needs also influence visual communication and perception. These behaviours such as scanning/skimming a page will determine if adequate information is received and processed fully and correctly.  In addition to the messages being transmitted, the method used to convey these messages should also address needs of the user.  Text, sound, pictures, colours, white space, animation and multimedia are all elements which contribute to sensory stimuli and aid in perception, but depending on the usage can result in split attention effect and even sensory overload.

“For example, when trying to understand a diagram with an explanation in the sidebar, we hold small bits of explanatory text in working memory, which is temporary. We then search through the diagram for the visual element we just read about. Or we might listen to a voice over and then view a corresponding animation after the narration ends. Each of these examples induces the split-attention effect in the viewer, which occurs when a person must mentally integrate two or more diverse sources of information that can’t be understood in isolation……. The problem is that working memory is limited in capacity and duration. When our attention is split spatially or temporally, it’s difficult to hold all the separate pieces of information in memory at one time in order to integrate them. This makes it difficult to process information and to understand a visual. When the demands on working memory become too great, viewers will fail to comprehend, miss important points or just give up.”[2]

Some ways to avoid splitting a viewer’s attention is by employing proximity, colour and combining visual and sound when using multiple methods of delivering information.

Proximity can also be used to create a visually appealing design through use of white space and structure or consistent organization of the piece.It can also assist with navigating a website or elearning module:

“One other major benefit of proximity is that it help users navigate a website without unnecessary delays or obstacles. When the primary navigation is clearly separated from the other elements on the page, it will be found instantly and is less likely to be forgotten.” [3]

Placing related information close together (text and graphics) will support the  viewer’s internal processes; they don’t have to refer back or forth between spaces or pages to comprehend the information being presented. Colour reduces the mental effort required to search and match information.  Lastly, “You can circumvent split attention by replacing one modality (visual or auditory) with an alternative approach. If you’re creating a multimedia presentation or an animation, consider using audio rather than blocks of text so viewers won’t have to read and watch a presentation or animation at the same time. To facilitate the mental integration of material, ensure the audio plays concurrently with the corresponding visual. Both elements should be present in working memory at the same time. This solution works because auditory information is (most likely) processed in a separate channel from visual information. Essentially, you’re increasing the capacity of working memory by using two modalities and thus, two channels.”[2]

Taking into consideration the way a person receives and processes information will influence the way communcation materials are designed and convey messages.   Using some of these methods will help to convey information effectively.  Over time, the ways and technology used to convey messages visually has changed, but the underlying principles which influence receipt, processing, recall and recognition remain the same.  These congitive principles along with design principles shape the world we interact with and learn within each day.