We live in a very visual age. We look at images on screens all day at work, and look at images on screens in our spare time. Why do we love visuals? What is it about a good visual that grabs and keeps our attention? And perhaps more importantly, why do visuals work? Well, that depends on the purpose at hand. For an artist, the goal of visuals is to convey an idea or emotional sense. For a designer, the goal is to tell a visual story by displaying information clearly, intuitively, and accessibly. For a marketer, the goal is to attract and retain a client’s interest and loyalty – to encourage them to heed calls to action. But for a good digital marketer, the goal should be all of the above.
Visuals work best when they accomplish one or more of the following:
Provide Relevant Information
Pictures really are worth a thousand words. Visuals can communicate in seconds what it would take minutes to describe through text – and they can do so with style to boot. Need to communicate what a product is? A picture will almost always answer a majority of questions, allow the user to visualize how to use the product, and also how it can work for them. People implicitly understand this, and look to visuals readily. A short video, a series of icons or a sampling of lifestyle photos can save you thousands of dry informational words.
Simplify Something Complicated
Sometimes it’s not a matter of conveying new information, but making sense of information the viewer already has. Visuals can make order out of chaos, convert complex facts into a coherent narrative, and most importantly, they can do so much quicker than text, reducing the risk of confused visitors leaving the site before an explanation can be relayed to them. Infographics (animated or static) are a great example of this – they organize and display data in a more engaging way, with the added benefit of telling a visual story and being extremely shareable. Graphs, charts, tables and iconography are other forms of visual communication that are designed to help explain and provide information in a more visual and digestible way.
Provoke an Emotional Response
Humans are very visual creatures – we’ve evolved to emotionally respond to what we see. Sure, we can react to an explanation or a description – but pair a beautifully moving image with a great piece of copy, and it hits us all at once. Making viewers react, moving them out of complacency, is the holy grail of marketing, and provoking an emotional response – be it happiness, sadness, surprise, or thoughtfulness – is a proven way of doing this.
Text can accomplish this, but it takes time to really work its magic – and convincing people to read for that long is as difficult, if not more so, than making an image pull all their heartstrings, prompting them to keep going. When the right visual connects with viewers, it does so instantly – they respond before they even know it.
Move the Viewer to Action
Visuals can encourage action without necessarily evoking a conscious emotional response. There are a number of proven techniques designers use to prompt a user to act. Specific colours can draw in our attention and encourage our courses of action. Well designed, and strategically placed buttons get clicked more than standard, embedded ones. Text gets read more when accompanied by a picture of someone looking at it, or when next to an icon that visually represents its message. We all follow subtle cues like these, and skilled designers and user experiences professionals will put plenty of thought, planning, and attention into ensuring that the desired actions are satisfied.
Stick in the User’s Mind
Humans are hardwired to remember visuals better than almost anything. There is a reason why most remember a face better than a name. So, if a visual doesn’t trigger an immediate response from a viewer, the next best thing it can do is be memorable, in hopes of triggering a response later. A Harvard-MIT study on information visualization found that imagery is more memorable when they: have plenty of colours; use recognizable objects (instead of abstract shapes); and aren’t too informationally dense – that is, they have a low ‘data-to-ink ratio’. In short, visuals should be interesting and appealing, and provide information – but not so densely that they just become ornate text. Visuals that help to tell a great story, will leave a positive impression on the user and will make your site, tool, or marketing material, stand out better in their memory, which is great for return customers and referrals made.
Brand an Experience
While doing all these nice things – educating, clarifying, moving and impressing – visuals can subtly brand the entire experience. Whether by including a logo, a colour scheme, a font or something as vague as a ‘feel,’ the look of a site can associate the user’s experience with the company’s persona. Doing this with text alone is difficult, and often requires inserting slogans everywhere, like catch phrases. But with visuals, branding is quiet, nonintrusive, and, a more impactful experience for the user.
The more of these you can achieve with visuals, the better. Beyond that, it’s important that your visuals stay relevant. If you have useful information for your audience, put it front and center. If a visual tells a story, provokes a response or irresistibly draws the eye in, it is far more likely to get looked at and acted on. Once you’ve managed that, you can finally get down to business.