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It’s ironic. You spend hours, days, weeks, or even months working on the visual design of an infographic or a website. Yet research by Katharina Reinecke, Lane Harrison, and the team at the University of Michigan shows that people make lasting judgments about the design’s appeal in 500 ms (one-half of a second) or less.

According to their research, this first impression sticks and influences later opinions about the usability and trustworthiness of the website or product.

Reinecke (2013) and her team started by collecting web pages in various languages.

They selected 450 websites, with a range of visual complexity and use of color. They analyzed each page on a variety of metrics, such as hue, saturation, color intensity, symmetry, balance, and equilibrium.

Next they validated these metrics by showing the websites to the participants for 500 ms, and had the participants rate them: 184 people rated 30 websites for visual complexity, and 122 rated 30 websites for colorfulness. (They tested all 450 websites, but each person rated only 30.)

Now the team had 450 websites with validated metrics. The last part of the study was to show the websites for 500 ms to a new group of people. Instead of rating for complexity or colorfulness, however, these people rated the websites on visual appeal. The team tested 242 people in this phase of the experiment.

So what were the results for the visual appeal ratings of websites?

  • Visual complexity was the most important factor in a website being rated as visually appealing. Most appealing were websites of low to medium visual complexity. High visual complexity resulted in the lowest visual appeal scores.
  • Participants older than 45 liked websites with a low visual complexity more than the other age groups.
  • Participants with a PhD didn’t like websites that were highly colorful; the same was true of those with only a high school diploma.
  • There were no significant differences between men and women.

Testing Infographics Instead Of Websites

Harrison, Reinecke, and Remco Chang (2015) used the same methodology to test 330 infographics for visual appeal. They had 1,278 participants rate infographics after viewing them for 500 ms.

The results for the infographics visual appeal ratings were as follows:

  • There was a lot of variability in the infographic ratings. Only a few of the 330 infographics were universally appealing. Unlike the website research, infographics that some people rated very highly were rated very low by others.
  • As with the websites, colorfulness and visual complexity were the important variables when it came to judging a design as visually appealing. However, with the infographics, colorfulness was more important than visual complexity—the opposite result of the website ratings.
  • Looking at the data overall, infographics that were colorful were rated as more appealing. However, there’s an important effect hidden in the color data: men didn’t like the colorful infographics, and women did.
  • There were also gender effects for complexity. Visual complexity didn’t affect men’s ratings of visual appeal, but women tended to like infographics that were less complex.
  • Most people did not like infographics with a lot of text, but women were more affected by this than men. The amount of text was not a strong influence for men, but the women preferred infographics with more images.
  • Education had a small effect. The more education a person had, the more they preferred less colorful and less complex infographics. But gender was a stronger effect than education.

Designing For An Audience

It’s probably not news to you that not everyone reacts to visual design in the same way. But sometimes designers unconsciously start designing what they think works well, rather than taking the target audience into account.

Depending on what you’re designing, and whom you’re designing for, you may want to consider changing the complexity, the amount of color, or even the amount of text. Be careful of using your aesthetic when making these decisions. You may not be representative of your target audience.


  • People tend to make quick and lasting decisions about design, so make sure your design has quick and unconscious visual appeal.
  • When designing a website, don’t underestimate the importance of visual complexity. Research shows visual complexity is the most important variable people use in deciding how visually appealing your site is, and gender doesn’t matter when it comes to visual complexity and website design.
  • When designing a website, use low to medium visual complexity for maximum appeal.
  • When your target audience is mainly people over age 45, reduce the visual complexity of the design.
  • When you’re designing an infographic and your target audience is primarily men, use less color.
  • When you’re designing an infographic and your target audience is primarily women, reduce the visual complexity and use less text.


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