Back in January we introduced you to the concept of integrating Behavioral Science into Graphic Design. If you did not have a chance to read it, or for a recap, click here

Today we will expand a bit more on the idea of “cognitive load”.
Not only is cognitive load a valuable resource to utilize in graphic design; but it is also extremely valuable in communications, speaking engagements, presentation’s and an all-around useful tool for increasing the understanding of any subject.

Let’s take a quick look at what cognitive load is. Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in working memory. Rationally, we would think that the more information that a person is given, the better informed they would be; therefore, they would make more sound decisions. However, this is not typically the case.

In short, quite often: Less is More.

  • Too much info and the brain can become overloaded and confused.
  • Break it down to the essentials and things just might stick!

When people become overloaded they tend to:

  • Fall back to their established habits and routines
  • Fail to process new information or ignore it completely
  • Have myopic focus, cherry picking information and placing it into a pre-existing schema
  • Become overwhelmed and shut down

None of these scenarios are conducive to driving understanding and retention.

So now that you understand the concept – let’s make it real.

Last month we talked about McDonalds cheeseburgers and the power of a strong brand, since its lunch-time as I am writing this, I’m going to stick with the food analogy.

You walk into an all you-can-eat buffet with foods from all over the world. In the middle of the restaurant is a long banquet littered with every style food you can imagine.  Starting with salads – not just one type but 5, followed quickly by the soups – from miso to chowder to dumpling, next you have 14 variations of Indian food – everything from 4 types of saag to massala to chicken korma, we hurry along to the sushi – rows upon rows of it – 25 types! Following the sushi comes the general’s chicken, fried rice, lo mein, orange chicken, sweet and sour chicken, sweet and sour pork, crab rangoons, wontons, eggrolls, meatballs, pizza… the list goes on. And finally we have a desert tray; rice pudding, chocolate cake, mochi and more!

I’m willing to bet, if you are like many (including myself), when you get to your table you realize that you have the Mount Everest of plates, covered in every type of food, half of which you didn’t even want. In fact, your FAVORITE item only takes up one measly little corner of the plate.

Now imagine the same scenario, but instead the buffet only has 8 items in total. This time, I am willing to bet you focused on the 4 items you liked most and you are more satisfied with your overall plate.

Now think about this in relation to your post-meal experience. In the case of the overloaded plate, chances are when you leave you don’t have one specific item, the perfect food experience, that stands out in your memory. Everything is jumbled together and you feel overwhelmed, bloated and overstuffed.

With the second, streamlined, thought-out plate, you can easily think back on all the sweet and savory goodness that the saag provided, complimented perfectly by its simple and carefully chosen side dishes.

This may sound silly, and while cognitive load typically refers to understanding rather than food cravings – the concept is similar. You had too many options and forgot to focus on what was most important – YOUR FAVORITE ITEM (let’s call this the “primary subject”) nor can you remember that one specific flavor that stood out in vivid detail (let’s call this the “key takeaway”).

With communications and when speaking to your employees, peers etc. it can be the same.

In the case of organizations and employees, the “favorite item in the buffet” is the “primary subject” you are trying to educate your audience on, and the vivid memory of that favorite dish is the “key takeaway” that you are hoping to instill upon your audience when they leave. Give them too much “fluff”’ and they will walk away with more than needed, in some cases missing that key-item entirely. If you fill their plate (your communication, your presentation) with too much information they will walk away feeling overwhelmed, mentally bloated and mentally overstuffed.

Boil it down to the most important elements that you are trying to convey, carefully craft some complimentary side dishes that enhance that point and your audience will walk away satisfied and full with understanding.

For example, if you are trying to increase the understanding of an employee’s incentive program, ask yourself:

  1. “What do I want my audience to understand IMMEDIATELY?”
  2. “Do I absolutely need to convey that information right now?”

In this case,

  1. You want them to understand how they get paid so they can spend more time selling and less time trying to figure out how their plan works.
  2. Do they really need to see in depth all the Excel sheets, numbers, analytics and data that went into creating the plan or is it enough for them know that it is there and that A + B = C?*

*Please note it is important for them to know that that research and analysis went into the plan design from a buy-in and rationalization standpoint, but as far as understanding goes it’s simple enough for them to know it is there.

I would keep going on about cognitive load and how valuable it is for you, but that would defeat the purpose of everything I just told you – so I will keep this short, sweet, and to the point. Less is more.