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How to Focus Your Audience’s Attention in Data Visualization Through Gestalt Principles

May 24, 2021


Visualization is a powerful tool to make data more informative and clear for audiences. When visualizing data, it is important to focus your audience’s attention on what matters the most. When taking into consideration your audience’s attention span, you will want to make your visualizations as simple as possible. You want to make sure that your audience is able to focus on what is important so that they are able to get the most out of the visualization. If too much information is on the visualization, it can distract the audience and they may not be able to fully understand the message the visualization is trying to communicate.

Gestalt principles to focus your audience’s attention

As data charts and tables typically feature multiple data elements, Gestalt principles can help us prepare and anticipate how the data in its entirety will be perceived by an audience. So while there are many different Gestalt principles, the ones presented here are relevant and helpful for data visualization and storytelling.

Eight Gestalt principles explained

Gestalt principles
Eight Gestalt principles

  • Proximity: we perceive data elements that are near to each other as being a related group.
  • Similarity: when items are alike in their properties, we group them together. The similarity could be based on different attributes, such as size, shape, color, and so on.
  • Enclosure: if a number of elements is surrounded by something such as a line or an an object, the elements will be perceived as being a group.
  • Connection: we see elements that are connected by lines as being related to each other.
  • Continuity: when we’ll look at points, we will perceive them as smooth groups or continuous line rather than sharp broken lines.
  • Closure: when we see gaps in lines of formations, we will organize them into complete shapes rather than seeing the parts as separate components.
  • Figure-ground: we see objects that appear to be in the foreground as being separate from those in the background.
  • Common fate: If objects move together in the same direction and speed, they are perceived as being a group. This is mainly applicable to animated graphics.

Make it easy for your audience!

When you show texts and data together, make it clear to your audience when they read the texts where they should look in the data for evidence of what’s being said. And when they look at the data, where are they should look in the text for additional details. The Gestalt principles can help us help you. In the video above, I run you through an example to see the principles in action. If you are interested in learning more about ways to focus your audience’s attention and about crafting effective data visualizations, take a look at the Data Visualization course of the Marketing Analytics Academy.

If you want to read more about Gestalt principles, make sure you look into the great books by Brent Dykes and Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, which served as basis for this post.

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