Features September/October 2023

A Cognitive Approach to Visual Design

A practical method technical communicators can use to understand and address the mental models an audience relies on when using visual content.

By Kirk St.Amant | Fellow

Technical content is becoming increasingly visual in nature. Instructional videos often supplement written instructions and infographics increasingly explain technical concepts to users. While design expectations can vary, they reflect a common set of underlying psychological – or cognitive – processes involving mental models of how individuals think about, or “picture,” information when performing a task. The ARCO method (Actualization, Recognition, Categorization, Operationalization) can help technical communicators understand these cognitive processes.

The ARCO method identifies the mental models shaping an audience’s uses of visual content. It does so by focusing on four core cognitive activities involved in visual processing: actualization, identification, categorization, and operationalization (ARCO). As such, technical communicators can use the ARCO method to create visual content that meets an audience’s usability expectations.

Mental Models and Visual Content

Creating effective visual content involves understanding how the mind uses mental models to process visual information. Essentially, these models are mental pictures of what individuals think something should “look like.” If individuals hear or read the word “car,” for example, a mental picture of a car – that person’s mental model for “car” – generally springs to mind. These mental models greatly influence how individuals use visual information.

When individuals encounter visual content, they compare it to the mental models they have for different items. The more that visual content resembles a particular mental model, the more likely individuals will identify that content as the thing represented by the related mental model. So, the more an image resembles a person’s mental model for a car, the more likely that person will identify that image as “car.”

Mental models are not universal. Rather, individuals create them based on their experiences. As a result, different audiences can have different mental models for the same item. This factor can affect how easily members of one group can use visual content created by another. This means, content creators cannot assume their audience will have similar expectations for visual content. Rather, content creators need to identify the mental models shaping an audience’s perceptions of visual information. The ARCO method helps achieve this objective.

Understanding ARCO Dynamics

The ARCO method examines how audiences use mental models when interacting with visual information. Essentially, the human mind does not randomly engage with visual content. Rather, it generally processes visual information via a four-step process comprised of

  • Actualization: How individuals focus their attention on visual content
  • Recognition: How individuals recognize, or identify, visual content
  • Categorization: How audiences determine the function(s) of visual content
  • Operationalization: How audiences determine the intended use of visual content

Summed up by the acronym “ARCO,” each step involves identifying the mental model that guides the related action.

If visual content addresses audience expectations, the mind will perform these four steps almost instantly. If visual content fails to meet audience expectations during any step in this process, confusion can result. The ARCO method provides a framework for identifying an audience’s expectations for each step of this process.

Applying the ARCO Method

The ARCO method identifies the mental models affecting each step in the process individuals perform when they encounter visual content. After identifying such expectations, technical communicators can design visual content audiences can more easily use per this process.

A – Actualization

Actualization, the first step in using visual content, involves finding that content. The mind does so by using one of two processes.

  • Process 1: Individuals might not have a mental model for an item, or they might not know what they are trying to locate (don’t know which mental model to use to find visual information). If this is the case, visual elements that contrast markedly from their surroundings will better catch and hold attention. For user docs, this could mean creating a manual that has a completely different colored cover from all others that might be on a shelf. For an interface, this could be a button colored to contrast greatly from all other visual elements on an interface.
  • Process 2: If individuals know what they are trying to find, a different process occurs. These persons access the mental model of what they are seeking and scan their surroundings until they locate something matching that model. Essentially, if an audience has prior experience with certain design elements, technical communicators must create visual content that parallels these designs to attract that audience’s attention.

If visual content does not address these dynamics, audiences will give up on searching for an item or focus on the first thing that catches their attention.

To determine which process an audience uses to guide actualization, technical communicators should ask members of the intended audience

  • Have you performed a process before or is this your first time doing so?

The answer to this question helps determine how individuals search for content and which strategy to use (high contrast or model matching) to create visual content the audience can easily find.

R – Recognition

After focusing attention on something, individuals need to identify what that item is. This step is recognition, and it involves how audiences match visual content to existing mental models.

Essentially, individuals compare visual content they encounter to entries in a database of mental models representing things they recognize. The more the design of visual content matches one of these mental models, the more likely individuals will “recognize” content as that item. So, the more a picture of a hammer resembles someone’s mental model for a hammer, the more likely that person will identify the picture as “hammer.”

This matching process involves the features – or characteristics – of an item. When individuals compare a visual of a hammer to their mental model for a hammer, they don’t compare one overall item to the other. Rather, they compare the characteristics of the visual content (shape, color, etc.) to those of a mental model. The more characteristics in common, the closer the match, and the more likely the identification. The fewer the characteristics in common, the less likely identification.

Accordingly, the process audiences use to locate (actualize) visual content affects how they identify that content. This situation means the step of recognition involves one of two methods:

  • Method 1: If individuals use an existing mental model to locate something, then the content creator can assume the audience will use that same mental model to identify it. In this case, designing for actualization includes designing for recognition.
  • Example: Using an image of a hammer that has the same characteristics the audience uses to locate/identify a hammer as the image used to identify the hammer.


  • Method 2: If individuals don’t know what they are searching for, actualization and recognition could involve different factors. In this case, visual content must be high contrast to attract attention, but it should also replicate the design of an existing mental model to be recognized.
  • Example: Using an image of a bright red hammer to attract attention (the color) and be recognized (matching a mental model).

Both methods require technical communicators to identify the mental models – and associated characteristics – audiences will use to recognize visual content. In either case, the technical communicator needs to design visual content to have as many characteristics as possible in common with an audience’s mental model for that item.

To identify the mental models (and characteristics) an audience uses to recognize visual content, technical communicators need to ask members of that audience

  • Can you describe [item X] for me? What features/characteristics should it have?

The resulting answers help determine the features an item should have so audiences can readily recognize the visual content they have found.


C – Categorization

Just because individuals recognize what visual content is does not mean they know what it does or how to use it. In fact, an audience might associate different uses with the same visual content. These situations involve the step of categorization – or determining the function of recognized visual content.

As with recognition, categorization is based upon using mental models created through prior exposure. If an audience has previously used a telephone receiver icon to access a “make phone call” feature, they will likely associate similar visuals with that function (categorize them as a “phone call app”). If, however, prior experiences involved using this icon to access a contacts list, the audience will associate that design with this “access contacts” function.

To address categorization, technical communicators must determine:

  • What functions or uses an audience associates with certain visual content
  • If such associations include using that content as expected or needed

To identify the mental models affecting categorization, technical communicators should ask members of the intended audience

  • Can you tell me what [item X] does? How do you use [item X] to perform that process?

The responses help identify what function an audience associates with certain visual content.

If audiences are unfamiliar with the intended use of visual content, technical communicators should consider one of two options:

  • Option 1: Use visual content the audience will recognize and use as intended (replace current visual content with that the audience will use as intended).


  • Option 2: Modify visual content to include explanatory text (e.g., designing an icon to include the words “tap to make a call”).

At this level, changes to visual designs could affect earlier actualization and recognition processes. For this reason, technical communicators need to review any modified visual content to make sure the intended audience can still locate, recognize, and use it.

O – Operationalization

Audiences often associate visual designs with multiple functions (e.g., a red button can be used to turn something on or turn it off – or both). Making sure audiences select the correct use of visual content involves understanding operationalization, the final step in the ARCO process.

Operationalization is a matter of context as the mental models for using items often associate a particular use with a certain setting. So, after the mind locates, identifies, and categorizes an item, it reviews the context in which the item appears and determines how the item should be used in that context. This final step is guided by the mental models that reflect where individuals have previously used certain items.

Addressing operationalization involves two (2) steps:

  • Step 1: Determine the context an audience associates with a particular use (the intended use) of visual content.

For this step, technical communicators should ask members of the intended audience

  • In what settings or locations do you use [item X] to do/perform [specific, intended task]?

The responses help identify the context audience members associate with using visual content in certain ways.

  • Step 2: Present content within that context to ensure that intended use.

For this step, technical communicators could modify the design of visual content to provide the context audience members need to recognize the intended use of that content. For example, to indicate something is an app for making phone calls, the technical communicator might present the item within the screen of a smartphone. Alternatively, to indicate the item is used to access a contacts list, the technical communicator might present it as juxtaposed with an image of an address book.

In both situations, the strategy involves designing visual content (call phone icon) to appear within the context audiences associate with a particular use (screen of smartphone). Doing so helps ensure audiences use that content as intended.

While simple, the approach described here can help identify a wealth of information on audience expectations for visual content. Technical communicators can also modify this process to collect additional information as needed (“Can you draw an example of [Item X] as you describe it?”). The resulting answers provide insights technical communicators can use to create visual content an audience can easily locate, identify, and use.

Final Thoughts

What constitutes usable visual content can vary from audience to audience, and such differences can create challenges for technical communicators. The ARCO method helps address this situation by identifying the mental models affecting how audiences locate, identify, and use visual information. By using this method, technical communicators can take steps to create usable visual content for different audiences.

For Further Reading

Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012.

Eyal, Nir. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. New York: Portfolio/Penguin Books, 2014.

Martin, Don. 2021. “5 Cognitive Psychology Theories That Contribute to the Quality of UX Design.” UX Magazine (2021). Retrieved from https://uxmag.com/articles/5-cognitive-psychology-theories-that-contribute-to-the-quality-of-ux-design.

St.Amant, Kirk. “Reflexes, Reactions, and Usability: Examining How Prototypes of Place Can Enhance UXD Practices.” Communication Design Quarterly 6, no. 1 (2018): 45-53. https://doi.org/10.1145/3230970.3230976.

Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and User Experience Basics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

Wolfe, Jeremy M. “Guided Search 4.0: Current Progress with a Model of Visual Search,” in Integrated Models of Cognitive Systems, Oxford University Press: New York, NY, 2007.

StAmant Headshot

Kirk St.Amant is a Professor and the Eunice C. Williamson Endowed Chair in Technical Communication at Louisiana Tech University. He is also the Director of the University’s Center for Health and Medical Communication (CHMC) and its Usability Studies Lab.