Preattentive Attributes

In: Graphic Design (general)

17 Oct 2011

Over at Storytelling with Data, Cole provides a well written example of how to use preattentive attributes to make a better graphic. What the hell are “preattentive attributes”?

"Preattentive attributes" in the world of information visualization is a fancy descriptor for aspects of a visual that hit our iconic memory. Iconic memory is what happens in our brain before short term memory kicks in, before we even really know that we’re thinking. Iconic memory is tuned to pick up preattentive attributes: things like color, size, added marks, and spacial position (related Stephen Few article)




This reminded me of some efforts on the education front to teach Graphicacy (Graphic literacy). While “graphicacy” is one of the dumber new words I’ve heard in a while, the concept is sound – the skill set of interpreting graphs. I have definitely witnessed people learning how to interpret new graph types, and it’s a fascinating process. The American Society for Innovation Design in Education (ASIDE) have done some interesting work on the subject if you want to look into it further:


3 Responses to Preattentive Attributes


Connie Malamed

October 17th, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Actually, the idea of graphicacy is pretty cool. It’s the same as literacy, but having to do with graphics. It refers to one’s ability to conceive of visuals as well as to comprehend them. It should be taught along with reading and math in school, from a very young age and all through high school.

Imagine a graphically literate society, where people were comfortable with sketching and drawing out ideas. I think the world would be a smarter place.



October 19th, 2011 at 11:05 am

Connie – I love the concept. Graphic comprehension and visual communication should definitely be taught in schools. I regularly explain to people that having poor charts in your reports is the equivalent of including typos and bad grammar in your writing. Most people just don’t see the parallels.

The term, though “graphicacy” – don’t like it. I don’t have any better suggestions at the moment, though.



October 24th, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Hi Dustin, thanks for the kind words! I agree with your sentiment that the idea of graphicacy is great, while the word is somewhat annoying. I find it interesting, though, that the onus seems to be put on the audience (at least in the ASIDE visual); to your point, we also need to teach the designers of the graphs how to do it well. There’s too much chart junk out there that looks sexy but doesn’t do a good job of communicating the data. Perhaps if people were better at that, graphicacy wouldn’t neet to be taught? Just some food for thought…

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