How Tigers Influenced Your Visual Processing

What do you see when you look at the picture below?

It’s not really a formal quiz, so I’ll just give you a hint. If you started off by thinking “it’s a grid” then you were correct. You were also correct, if you noted that the grid was comprised of 54 individual blue squares or boxes. You might have noted the rectangular shape of the grid too.

Grid with 54 Blocks

Grid with 54 Blocks

For the most part, you could also tell that all of the boxes were uniformly the same size, even though you didn’t measure them exactly. You could tell based on the patterns and angles that no one box or row or set was larger or smaller. Good.

Except for counting the 54 boxes, you made all of those initial observations instantly. According to studies from MIT, we can identify an image in as little as 13 milliseconds, which is about as close to “instant” as you can get. (Note: I can do it in 12 milliseconds, but I don’t want to brag.)

Some of you counted the 54 boxes individually and others did the multiplication, but to play along, you got to the number of boxes. This quickly demonstrates visual information that we collect instantly (as little as 13 milliseconds!) versus information that we must deliberately consider and calculate. In this case, literally calculate.

Now, look at the second picture below. What do you see?

Grid with boxes #2.

Grid with 54 Blocks #2

Same calculation. Size, shape, grid…and…yeah, the white box.

To confirm, there are still 54 boxes, but your description has probably changed. If I tell you that there are 54 boxes there, you’d probably describe the box like this: “It’s a grid with 53 blue boxes and one white box.”

That’s true, for sure. But think about how your visual interpretation gave equal weight to the one outlier. There are 53 blocks in blue and only one in white. If you read that sentence, you can see that we’re giving an accurate description, but inaccurate weighting.

These weightings aren’t even close. It’s a 53:1 ratio. That’s huge. If we doubled the numbers, we’d have 106 blue boxes and two white boxes. Tripled it’s 159 blue and three white. The ratio remains the same, but clearly not the actual numbers.

Visual Content as an Evolutionary Defense
So what is happening here? Well, you could say that this is just a normal way to describe a variation; that it’s more a quirk of language than anything significant.

I’d argue that it’s a visual processing advantage that was naturally selected in our shared human evolution.

Going back to our favorite caveman Grok, we can imagine a tribe hunter/gatherers working diligently in the fields. They are harvesting vegetables, which grow in the tall, wild grass. Also in the grass is a hungry tiger.

Ordinarily, they’d hear or smell this tiger, but the wind is in the tiger’s favor. Three cavemen see the tall grass, but only one notices the slight variation in the pattern.

There’s grassgrasstigergrass.

This minor variation startles the caveman and he realizes that something is amiss. Even though there are thousands of blades of grass and other green, organic visuals, Grok locks in on the one variation that matters. The tiger.

There is no spoken language in Grok’s tribe, but everyone understands basic hand gestures. Grok silently points to the tall grass and that one variation. Caveman #2 sees the little dot of variation. His eyes widen and he slowly creeps off to safety.

Caveman #3 squints. He sees nothing but the tall grass. He cannot see beyond the pattern. Grok implores him to look past the 53 blades of green grass and focus on the one blade of grass that appears to be tiger-orange in color. Grok creeps away quietly, expecting his friend to join him. Caveman #3 does not leave.

Caveman #3 sees the ratio of 53:1 and does not give it any additional weight. He runs the calculation in his head and estimates that there’s really no danger here. He is, of course, dead wrong. The tiger gets a nice meal.

What’s important is who survived. Grok survived, as did Caveman #2. They both recognized how the variation in the pattern mattered. They learned to identify important patterns quickly and to isolate important variables. Of course, their survival pattern became genetically encoded into our DNA.

Two grids side by side.

Two grids side by side. Now it’s a one in 108 ratio.

This ability to instantly recognize, identify, can categorize matters to us as visual storytellers. Our shared genetic experience is something that we leverage when we design, well, anything. The best designers understand how to use whites space and patterns to control the eye on the page.

As you plan your visual content strategy, consider the design and layout of your content. Most designers are familiar with the “hero space” on a web page, which ties back to the way we visually categorize things in order of weight and importance.

You looked at those grids with active intent to solve the mini riddle that I’d posed at the beginning of this post. You knew there was no danger, so your adrenaline remained low. No fight or flight required.


Grid with boxes #2.

Where’s the tiger?

And Now for Some Real Danger
But what if I’d put something at stake? What if I told you that there were 54 boxes on the screen, each representing an actual physical box in a warehouse. And one of your loved ones needed to retrieve something important from one of those boxes. The problem, of course, was that inside one of those boxes was a very hungry tiger. Your job is to guide your loved one to the right box…or at least not the wrong box.

You have a one in 54 chance of getting it wrong, but it is a matter of life and death. Those are pretty good odds, but you’d still be mighty careful guiding your loved one, as you looked on this computer screen.

Of course, the first thing you’d do is identify the pattern in the boxes and look for variations. After all, that’s how our ancestors survived.


Genetic Predisposition to Identifying Patterns
But also remember our genetic heritage and how we have evolved to instantly recognize patterns. It’s encoded into our DNA. It’s not static either.

For example, at one time, banners could disrupt our visual flow across a webpage. Now we’ve learned how to ignore banners in the top and sides of a webpage. We get what’s called “banner blindness.” There’s nothing we want to see there, so we focus our eyes on the things that we do want to see. Of course, advertisers know this, so we’re seeing ads that literally block our view, obliterating our ability to visually disregard them.

Generations ago, media evolved slowly and society had time to adjust. Now media changes after every annual consumer electronics show (CES). The rise of virtual reality will change our definition of what’s right before our own eyes.

As a result of these rapid visual evolutions, our shared visual experience is still being explored, expanded, and exploited in the digital age. Visual recognition, identification, and prioritization is a fluid, dynamic thing that is rooted in our genetically encoded instinct to survive.

As a visual storyteller, you must design for the medium and for the evolved human. Be aware of how effectively our eyes and brains process slight variations.

Design for ease of use, but also develop experiences that tap into the primal visual processing capabilities that were evolved from our ancestors.

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