Beyond Details – Creating Meaningful Visuals

Using the brain’s mental models to create visuals that matter.

Beyond Details – Creating Meaningful Visuals

In the previous article, we found that we simplify the world around us. We categorize everything and everyone we see, by their potential value to us. We don’t see details, but we see meaning instead. In this post we will delve deeper, beyond details. We will find out how our brain creates meaning and how we can use that knowledge to create visuals that matter.

Eye see you!

Perceiving the world around us obviously starts with our eyes. Let’s try the following:

Please stare at a fixed point right in front of you. Focus and look at all the details you see. Now, without turning your head, what’s going on on your left? Or your right? As you will notice, that’s very hard to tell, even if you already knew what was there before.

Isn't it frustrating when something is just out of focus?

You’ve noticed that the area outside of your focus, your peripheral vision, is not very sharp. It is said that our vision evolved for life on the savannah. We can see this in how our periphery works. It is most suited for seeing sudden changes in movement or light which, purportedly, helped us survive by enabling quick reactions to danger approaching from outside our field of view.

We probably don’t have ‘sharp’ vision everywhere because of a simple trade-off. Seeing in great detail is exceptionally costly, from an evolutionary perspective. It requires a lot of sensory cells to take in all the light, and a lot of resources to have the ‘computing power’ to process that, and to make sense out of it. Hence, we only see very well in the centre of our vision. So what about outside of it?

Can you trust your brain?

Do you feel like you actually see quite well in your periphery? Scientists recently discovered that our brains ‘trick’ us into thinking we see more than we really do [1]. Our brain creates a visual illusion about what’s in our periphery, basically guessing what could be there on the limited stimulus it receives. “As the brain processes information about an external stimulus, we come to learn, it creates a representation of the outside world that can diverge from reality in noticeable ways.”. That means vision doesn’t (only) come from the eyes, but it has a lot to do with the brain too.

Think again when you hear someone say: “I’ve seen it with my own eyes”. A big part of ‘seeing’ actually happens in the brain.

Complex (Grey) Matter

“If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we’d be so simple that we couldn’t.” — Emerson M. Pugh

Let’s talk about our brain. I am by no means a neuroscientist or cognitive psychologist. The following information is based on the research of others and is most likely an oversimplification of reality. In the end, we simply don’t know enough about our brain to understand it fully. Hence Pugh’s quote. But for our current goal, learning to create meaningful visuals, an oversimplified understanding will suffice.

More Mental Models

In the previous post, we already touched upon mental models. Cognitive psychologists tell us that the brain doesn’t see the world ‘as it is’, but creates a series of mental models through a collection of discovery moments. We visually interrogate the world around us with our eyes. At the same time, our brain processes this, and throughout a whole bunch of questions, we arrive at mental models to understand the world around us. Our eyes visually perceive information and stimuli, as described above. Then, our brain is at-bat to do something with that data.

The stimuli get sent on to our primary visual cortex, in the back of our brain[2]. This part is excellent for seeing basic geometry and simple shapes. It then acts as a ‘relay station’ to other areas. Scientists think there are more than 30 areas involved, but we will touch upon three important ones, which we can use to our benefit.

Three highlighted brain areas.

Ventral Stream

This is our ‘what detector’. It recognises ‘what’ the thing we’re looking at is. It activates when we say the name of objects, as well as when we think of the names of the object we’re seeing.

Dorsal Stream

This area is used to locate an object in the physical body space. If you look around the room you’re in and then close your eyes, you can probably still navigate it reasonably well. You remember where things are in space, creating a mental model. That’s what happens in the dorsal stream part of the brain.

Limbic System

This part ‘feels’ and invokes emotions to what we’re seeing. It makes you feel happy when you see a video of kittens in your timeline or disgusted if you see something repulsive.

Full Picture

So, why am I telling you about these different brain areas? Well, we can see the different parts of the brain working to create various mental models of all the things we see in front of us. Understanding how we create a unified mental model enables us to create meaningful visuals, which in turn can be used to have maximum impact on our audiences.

Today's takeaways for creating meaningful visuals


First of all, it shows us that we should use visuals to clarify ideas. Seeing a visual is the starting point of the entire meaning attribution process. Good graphics invite the eye to dart around. We create a visual logic. In this act of engaging and looking at the image, we then create meaning.

Be dynamic

We can be more engaging if we present a dynamic or interactive visual. In essence, this means that video or animated elements work best. The audience should be triggered to imagine the object in the physical, or digital, space, ‘spatializing’ the visual, activating the dorsal stream. Motion and colour will activate the limbic system, evoking emotion.

Create evolving views

Lastly, we can augment our audience’s memory by presenting them with persistent & evolving views. Instead of presenting visuals one-by-one, as entirely independent objects, there’s a better way. We should build up stories visually, increasing the complexity as we go. This way, we can keep our audience’s attention and increase their focus.


So, to make meaning out of our stories, we should:

  1. Communicate in a visual way
  2. Make visuals dynamic and interactive
  3. Have visuals be persistent and evolving

Not only is this the best way to trigger our brains, and conform with the mental models we make. We’re also dealing with generations of people growing up in an increasingly digital world. This generation expects this modern way of being presented information. They expect the same level of visuals from their Asset Manager, as from their social media apps. If your company visually looks ‘out-dated’, they will feel your entire company, and it’s product offering, is out-dated.

At CORE, we have been applying these principles to all our work since day one. Furthermore, being a company with a fair share of youthful employees, we know how to communicate for the 21st century. In the next posts, we will dive deeper into these topics. Stay tuned for more!

Are you interested in how we work and how we can create engaging visuals, pitches and marketing collateral for you? Reach out to us via

[1] Association for Psychological Science. (2016, December 8). Illusion Reveals that the Brain Fills in Peripheral Vision. Retrieved from

[2]Wujec, T. (2009). 3 Ways the brain creates meaning. Retrieved from

Jonne is a Founding Partner at CORE, and serves as the Chief Design Officer.‍