Why care about cognitive theories?
Researchers have been trying to understand why visual information influences us for over 60 years. They have developed some fairly sound ideas about what happens in our minds when we see an image and you can use these concepts to enhance your desired effect in your designs. *It should be noted that there isn’t universal agreement on these theories. I’ll summarize the most widely supported concepts and let you decide which applies most to your work.
Image Theory(using your eyes to think)1
This theory suggests that visualizing information allows users to capitalize on the visual system to see and understand information easily.
Cognitive Fit Theory (match the image to the mind)2
Viewers compare a mental representation of the information to the visual depiction. Displays that do not match the mental model require cognitive transformations to make the visualization and mental representation align. Transformations increase processing steps, which may increase errors and time to complete a task.
Visualizations can use perception to complete some mental processes, which reduces mental effort. For example, cognition can be augmented by distributing information between an image that can store detailed information and a mental model that includes task relevant but sparse information.
1. Bertin, J. (1983). Semiology of graphics: diagrams, networks, maps.2. Vessey, I. (1991). Cognitive fit: A theory‐based analysis of the graphs versus tables literature. Decision Sciences, 22(2), 219–240.