People remember noticeably different things better than common things
-Hedwig Von Restorff

Background

Generally, we remember unique events better than normal ones. To create unique events, we can create a difference in context or a difference in experience.

A difference in context is when something is different than the rest of its setting. For example, imagine a crowd of white sheep, with one black sheep in the middle. Which sheep will you remember most?

A difference in experience is when an event is contradicts your past experience. For example, you go to McDonalds every day to buy a burger. One day, they miss putting the patty in your burger. If someone asks for your opinion on McDonald’s quality of service, would all the times you ate a burger have equal weighting? The answer is likely that the one negative experience is the memory most vivid.

Application in Design

Being aware of the Von Restorff effect, designers can use differences to highlight the more important elements in a design. For example: making select text bigger, bolder, a different color, prime placement…etc. Use an unconventional ad layout to improve viewer recall. Alternatively for copy writers, use unusual word combinations and spellings (if applicable) to improve interestingness (think Harry Potter – how many unique terms has JK Rowling used?).

An important note: the key to Von Restorff effect is rarity – if you highlight everything then you highlight nothing. Try to avoid bolding everything, having every single word in CAPS, and using too many colors. Remember that for every difference you create, the highlight applied to all other differences are diluted.

Examples of Von Restorff

Which elephant do you notice the most?
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Which tomato do you notice the most?
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When you first look at this, the first thing that pops up is the Subway logo. The use of color contrast, in addition to center focus help emphasize the element.
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Just from looking at this screenshot, what key message pops out? The common response would be “Cheap Web Hosting $2”
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