Design 101: Guiding The Eye
By Jan v. White
Prioritizing visual Information
Where do you expect a picture caption to be? Under the picture. If it isn't there, and you are sufficiently curious, you might go elsewhere in search of it... and get pretty frustrated if you can't find it fast.
But if you don't care that much, you'll drop the whole idea and skip to something else. Every time a potential reader fails to read what we put in front of them it's a wasted opportunity. To succeed as visual communicators, we must understand how people look at pages and how they react, so we can guide them. Obviously, we are talking basic generalities here and there are all sorts of exceptions. There are no rules. It is all based on empirical observation of peoples' habits.
Readers are lookers first. We hook them into reading with an irresistible gobbet of fascinating bait on the page. It makes sense to put it where they're most likely to notice it where they're used to looking for it. But it's a bit more complex than that, because the single page, on paper or screen, is looked at very differently from multi-page printed pieces. This is important to keep in mind in all of your document production efforts, whether it's printing brochures or newsletter design.
The single impression
The single page is entered at the top-left and then scanned diagonally downward. That is because we read from left to right. That's also why we put our signals at the top of the page. If you couple that with the instinctive act of looking at a picture before anything else, you reinvent fundamental advertisement design.
The picture/headline/text/coupon sequence going down page is the logical arrangement for the way the viewer sees it and reacts to it. The picture attracts attention. But since everyone interprets images in their own individual ways, you have to use words (i.e., a headline) to focus on the aspect of the illustration you want them to become aware of. You also use the headline to do double duty: by promising a benefit, it motivates them to enter the text, where the nub of the information lies. The text should be enticing enough that it persuades them to fill out the coupon and send for the free sample.
These are four completely logical and time-proven steps in the art of persuasion in print. You can depart from the pattern anyway you wish you can even turn it upside down but understand that you pay a price for originality. You risk that they won't follow you. Taking such a risk can be fun, exciting, creative, and perfectly OK... if it makes sense. The important thing to realize is that you are departing from the norm the casual viewers expect, and you are trying to seduce them. If the substance of the message is both uninteresting and visually/logically unexpected, you have two strikes against you.
In multi-page publications, you have to reckon with the physical aspects of the product, as an object that has to be held in the hand.
How did you find this article?
First off, you picked up the issue (you had to, otherwise how could you flip the pages?).
You held it by the spine (you had to, or it would fall on the floor).
You flipped the pages (it's faster and easier to do that than laying the thing on a desk and turning the pages slowly, one by one).
You saw only the outside halves of the pages (because the insides near the gutter are covered by the act of holding).
Something on those outside halves must have intrigued you, so you stopped flipping and used both hands to open the issue up to reveal the full spread. (Only now does the full impact of a spread design come into play, and it is seldom flat!)
That's the way everybody looks at a magazine or brochure or newsletter: they flip the pages, scanning it fast, looking for the interesting What's In It For Me stuff. Page-flippers see only the outsides and tops of pages precisely at that crucial time when they decide whether there's something worth stopping for. They decide in 2.5 seconds! Not much time to study; just enough time for a fleeting impression.
Furthermore, if there are lots of pages, they tend to concentrate on the top-left corner of left-hand pages and top-right corners of right-hand pages. That's because it's easier to scan sideways from left to right, as the pages are flipped, than it is to scan up-and-down on each page. Scanning columns from top-to-bottom becomes a nuisance after you've done it several times. Your neck gets tired because your face is heavy.
Try it on any magazine near you. Move your head from side to side. Now flip the magazine's pages and realize what you are paying attention to.
So you arrive at a few vital insights on how to use pages more effectively: Again, these aren't rules; they are observations of usual behavior, which you may depart from as and when you wish. Also, they don't really work for anything much bigger than the normal 8 1/2 x 11 page, because the physical reaction is different when the paper is big and floppy. And if the pages are bound in a stiff three-ring binder, then they can't be flipped in this intimate way either. Use your common sense.
Put your best stuff there where it will do you the most good, where it is most visible the first go-around: on the outsides of the pages, and especially up top. Why else do you think advertisers invest in those spaces?
Don't hide stuff in the gutter where it doesn't come into play until the spread has been opened up to reveal it. Beware of placing a headline that way: if it's invisible, what good is it?
Present your menu of choices sideways across the tops of the pages, so scanning readers can decide what to bother with. Try to avoid running-column makeup in which the readers have to dig to find what they are looking for.
Why are small and unimportant footnotes placed at the bottom of the page? Because that's the least important page area it's deadest around the gutter. Avoid putting pictures down there, unless you deliberately want to play them down. (Put your grip-and-grin and aware-recipients down there.)
Let the column-bottoms come as they may: who ever looks down there? Don't build pages from the bottom upward to get neat alignment down there. The top is the important part where you do your selling, so it should dictate the design. Control the page-tops and let the bottoms hang as they come.
Left-hand pages are not identical to right-hand pages. They must be laid out differently to make the most of the potential eye-catching areas. On a right-hand page, don't lose your logo or priority information in the left-hand gutter. Push it out so it can be seen at the far right. It will do its "signaling" job much more effectively.
This article was first published in Dynamic Graphics Magazine and is part of the magazine's series of articles on fundamental design concepts.