Illuminated advertising and billboards on Times Square in New York - symbolic image for visual communication and the power of images

Visual communication: the power of images – part I

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Table of contents

Images are everywhere and always present. In the digital age, of course, this is especially true in the online world, where pixel-based images (usually in the form of photos) are an integral part. Only rarely do websites, blogs or newsletters manage without image material. Images generate emotions and awaken desires, they inspire, fascinate and impress, but of course they can also cause the opposite. In corporate communications and advertising, images are used specifically to get people excited about something. After all, seeing is so important to us that we constantly create internal images even when our eyes are closed. In the following section, you will therefore first learn a bit more about the visual fixation of the human species. We will then move on to the topic of visual communication.

Man as a visual creature

Man is the only terrestrial animal that has developed a language of higher complexity. Although our thinking takes place in language, it is always accompanied by inner images. Of course, this is possible without a sense of sight, after all, there are enough people who are born blind and still have pictorial associations, memories and dreams. Spatial and thus pictorial ideas can therefore also be developed via the remaining senses and in particular the sense of touch.

But people do not only imagine, they also constantly communicate visually with the outside world, for example through gestures, facial expressions and other visual signs. This can be done consciously or unconsciously. Think, for example, of the famous first impression. Numerous studies show that just a few tenths of a second are enough for an unconscious impression of the other person to manifest itself. This is generated non-verbally, i.e. through sensory impressions that are not formed linguistically. Most of the time these are purely visual features, but other senses can of course be involved with body odor or the sound of the voice.

However, the sense of sight is by far the most important. In fact, humans absorb about 80 percent of all information through the eyes. In addition, people have the ability to remember things they have seen (especially faces) and to recall these contents even after a long time. The term “visual creature” has been well earned by man.

The human brain as signal processor

By the way, you can think of the process of seeing as being similar to electronic signal processing. High amounts of data are generated on the retina with every blink of an eye. The optic nerve of the human eye transmits millions of bits from there to the visual cortex every second for further processing. A few milliseconds (about 150 to 200) actually pass before the visual impression reaches the consciousness. So everything we are seeing right now happened in the past. This time delay is a fundamental phenomenon that affects all sensory impressions; after all, light must first reach the eye and sound must reach the ear before it continues along the nerve pathways. The real miracle, however, is that the sense data end up becoming “conscious” to a self and can be interpreted by that consciousness. But that’s just by the way.

What is visual communication?

The term visual communication is composed of the Latin words for seeing and communicating . This refers to the process in which the sense of sight is directly addressed in order to convey information and arouse feelings. Of course, one can also imagine a picture on the basis of a linguistic description. However, texts in pure form do not belong to the actual field of visual communication. Successful visual communication calls for visual stimuli that are as intense as possible, i.e. colors, shapes and structures that go beyond monotonous blocks of numbers and letters. The medium can be very different here. Whether painted or drawn images, photographs, prints, films, sculptures, installations or neon signs – messages are conveyed via graphic signs or images, often of course in combination with text, sound or spoken language. In these mixed forms, we usually perceive the content more intensively than via pure text.

Longer texts may stimulate imagination and fantasy, but they do not offer any particular appeal to the eye. That’s why there are hardly any advertising campaigns based only on texts. Successful marketing today actually always includes finding an authentic visual language and compiling meaningful motifs (professional image management is very helpful here). Incidentally, photo and video material is used much more frequently in advertising than illustrations or animations, for example, because it is often easier to produce and is more likely to be perceived as credible. Of course, we all know that the world depicted in advertising doesn’t exist like that and photos are almost always digitally manipulated. Nevertheless, the belief that they show a section of reality lingers subconsciously.

The power of non-linguistic stimuli

Advertising images that work well are usually not designed to be purely informative. Research shows that the human brain reacts to advertising particularly when non-linguistic stimuli are involved, stimuli that are processed more in the right hemisphere of the brain and trigger emotions in us or are taken in unconsciously and only develop their full potential later.

The content processing of images is of course much faster than that of text. The factor here is about 60,000. If there is a photo with a simple scene and a text describing this scene, then the image can be decoded within milliseconds without any special effort, while deciphering the text requires effort and time. During the unconscious processing of images by our brain, the truth content is not checked, of course. This is precisely why images can have such a manipulative effect. Whether an image is realistic or not, a first impression is always stored. So even if we don’t want to be impressed by advertising, we can’t completely escape it. This is why people rightly speak of “the power of images”.

How visual communication works and why it is important for companies

A picture says more than 1000 words

Everyone knows this saying and everyone knows that it has its justification. Illustrated offers usually perform better than unillustrated ones. After all, good images arouse curiosity, generate attention, invite people to take action, and arouse anticipation. In addition, images can trigger deep-seated emotions and create desires that contribute to the purchase decision. It may be a truism, but choosing the right images and finding an appropriate visual language can be instrumental in successful branding and image building.

Teaser images

Images not only have great emotionalizing potential, they can also make a text palatable to us. When you leaf through an illustrated magazine, the first thing that catches your eye are the photos. We examine these more or less closely before moving on to read the accompanying text. While the text is being processed in the speech center, the images have long since been decoded and emotionally evaluated, as we know this happens much faster. Images act as teasers here. First we look at a picture and then we decide whether we want to continue reading a text. Therefore, in such cases, you should always choose images that make you want more information.

The role of the image for communication

Language-independent communication often takes place via images and image-like representations such as symbols and pictograms. Images have the potential to convey meaning and significance directly at the moment of viewing. A good image can generate more power and emotional impact here than almost any other medium. Imagery is not universal and can change over time, but the powerful effect it has on our subconscious is a constant.

For newspapers, of course, pictures are particularly important. They structure the pages, help the reader to orientate quickly and generate interest for the respective article as eye-catcher.

While advertising images must be aesthetic and should trigger only positive associations, the most important thing with press images is that they tell a story and convey information. PR agencies should make sure that their visuals are as authentic and meaningful as possible. Typical advertising images should only be used where it is really necessary. In corporate communications, too, it can make sense to strike a “happy medium” and focus on information and emotion in equal measure.

Key Images

Visual language combines different media into a whole. This includes meaningful photographs, illustrations or symbols. From these, key visuals are compiled that symbolize a personality or a company. Key images must be designed to catch the eye immediately; after all, they are to be used in brochures, on packaging and websites as an effective communication tool. Key images can of course stand for very different things, e.g. business ideas, visions, corporate philosophies, competencies or unique selling points (USPs). In any case, they are essential for image building.

The color and shape design must of course be attractive and appeal to the consumer emotionally. This is the only way to create a lasting impression. This also applies to logos and lettering. In the minds of consumers, word-picture marks and designs with high recognition value are particularly present. Just think of the purple of Milka or the yellow logo of McDonald’s. But traffic signs or traffic lights are also good examples of memorable visual communication.

Conclusion and outlook

If key images are to work, then a visual language must be developed that is consistent and fits the company in question; after all, key visuals are often the first point of contact. A negative or false image statement can quickly cause irreparable damage here!

The second part of this article deals with the most important rules for a successful visual language. In doing so, we also open up practical details and illustrate them with some examples.

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