Thinking About Communicating Visually

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Social media and human beings share several things in common, such as the connections and sharing each depends upon.  Increasingly we also depend on visual cues and imagery.  In both the increasingly visual Web and in human vision, we experience an onslaught of rapid posting and processing of images to communicate news and information or to convince us to buy something or feel some way about a product or service or brand.

Professional photographers, advertisers and graphic designers are masters at using and interpreting images.  Visual Communications is an aspect of growing importance for professional communicators too.

The Avalanche of Imagery:  As The Atlantic recently reported in a story about how many pictures of you there might be on the Web, “according to Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends report, people uploaded an average of 1.8 billion digital images every single day. That’s 657 billion photos per year. Another way to think about it: Every two minutes, humans take more photos than ever existed in total 150 years ago.”

In that avalanche of visuals, there are also exciting opportunities for business to understand what customers share and communicate visually.  I’ll never forget being on Flickr one weekend (a photo site often thought of for family vacation pictures and photographers) randomly deciding to search “Dell servers” before Dell had a presence there.  To my amazement, by both the number and beauty, several thousand images showed up – all customer generated.

Image Processing and Meaning: Our individual visual processes happen so fast and unconsciously that we rarely stop to think about them or even recognize they are happening in a way that impacts our understanding, feeling and perceptions about what we are viewing.

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Visual communication isn’t new.  For years, dating back to cave paintings imagery has been used to tell stories; account for human activity; and, as sources of spiritual power and inspiration.

The composition of the image (what is in the image and where it is placed, what is left out), the patterns and textures, the colors and the light all work in tandem to convey both what we see and how it makes us feel.  For example, extreme contrast, color saturation and jagged lines offer excitement. While curved lines, pastel colors and soft focus can be soothing and reflective.

Each of these elements, individually and together, affect what is being communicated.  And while these aspects say something about what is being communicated, how the overall image is received and understood, ultimately the viewer decides, despite what we may have wanted to communicate.

Communicating Business Messages Visually: Here is a fun exercise for communications or marketing teams.  Take your company messages and proof points.  Instead of writing them in text, use a series of images (from your brand approved image bank or elsewhere) to articulate your business positioning.  Three questions arise:

  • Were you able to do that successfully and easily?
  • How did your efforts compare to your colleague’s efforts?
  • Did you understand your colleague’s choices?  Could they make sense of yours?

I’m guessing that demonstrates why communicating on an increasingly visual Web requires some visual literacy by communicators for both news and storytelling about the business, its’ brands and products.

Visual Communications Strategy:  According the Merriam-Webster dictionary strategy is a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time; the skill of making or carrying out plans to achieve a goal. 

Therefore, a visual communication strategy is a careful plan or method that articulates what images look like and how they are used in coherent and consistent ways to explain/position your business in a non-verbal manner in order to achieve the business goal you have identified.   A visual communications strategy is a plan that puts in place a way to use non-verbal communications to achieve a business purpose.

Communicating a business purpose using visuals reaches beyond how many hashtags to use on Instagram.  There are plenty of posts about how to make an infographic, or what fonts to use on the Web, or why to use attention grabbing images to garner attention to tweets or a blog post.  There are likely all kinds of company specific brand guidelines for brand or product or product-use photos.  And, there may be good reason to post and share the Company’s latest advertisement on the YouTube channel.  These are visual tactics — used to grab some attention, supplement or reinforce other efforts or employ visual assets as attempts to seek engagement from viewers. They may achieve that today.  However, over time, they might not be successful at actually communicating in a purely visual, non-verbal way what it is you want people to know, think, believe or do in relation to your business.

With the Web’s growth as a visual medium, the tactical uses of imagery may become less sustainable at garnering attention.   In the longer run, the way we use imagery today may fail to garner the attention we want, while also failing to communicate what it is your business seeks to achieve.

Elements to Consider in a Visual Communications Strategy: While I continue to mull over and keep an eye on issues impacting visual communications, here are some thoughts that business communicators could consider when it comes to a coherent and impactful approach to using visuals in social media and business content efforts:20080824_0165

  1. Communicate Visually: A visual communications strategy can be devised to articulate what you want to communicate using images – a non-verbal language — and how to achieve that on your Website, blog, across social networks and through the use of imagery in other communications tools.
  2. Consistency Across Visual Assets Used in Ongoing Ways to Communicate: A visual communications strategy includes consistency of non-verbal messages across all visual assets (video, photographs, pins, graphics, cartoons, infographics, use of visuals in tweets or in conjunction with posts, news releases, etc.). In this respect visual communications encompasses more than traditional brand and logo guidelines or product placements. It reaches beyond what is an acceptable brand image.  Visual communications is about how images are used in general, and in an ongoing ways, to articulate what you want others to know, understand and think about your business (see #1 and #4).
  3. Composition Considerations: Factors such as color, light, compositional components are important aspects to consider in how a business defines what it wants to communicate in a non-verbal way. These are visual tools that drive the universal and ubiquitous language of images.
  4. Different visual communications strategies for different business purposes: Different visual communications strategies (and therefore different visual assets, different uses/placements and different guidelines) may be required for different business purposes (e.g. brands and product use could require a visual communications strategy that is very different from a long form and ongoing visual corporate story).

a) A visual strategy could be transactional (i.e. product and placement on Instagram with a contest); oriented towards brand values and emotion; focused on building relationships with stakeholders through engagement; and/or, be the basis for long form brand storytelling.

b) Visual communications can be very effective at conveying mood and emotion you want associated with your business and brand values/attributes (excitement, time to relax, happiness, a solution to challenges, family time, etc.).

c) A visual communication strategy from the business might look very different than how users tell your visual stories. There may be a need to understand those differences in building the strategy. There may also be an opportunity to use user-generated visual content (e.g. Shot on iphone 6 campaign)

5. How Visual Assets Interact: Visual communication requires a coherent approach to the visual composition of the image (see #3) but it also requires consideration of how the image and visual assets are used separately and/or together (i.e. their timing, repetition, placement across different social platforms) to achieve the business purpose (see #4).

a) While repetition of images/ads can be important, we also know that human minds process images differently and our memory recognition of visuals is highly advanced. Repetition of images can lead people to overlook and ignore them because the images become too familiar. Perhaps an important consideration in the visual avalanche online.

b) Visual communications consistency (not necessarily repetition) across social platforms is crucial to delivering your brand and business message – whether that be a video on YouTube, a picture in an ad, a blog post, or a series of tweets.

c) Visual strategies need to take into account how the form (the daily image posted to a visual social site or a series of blog posts that include various images) and the content of the image interact. They are often interdependent.

d) Visual meaning can be established as much by the movement between several images over several days as by the individual image that is repeated or a series of images used in conjunction with text

6. Leaving Room for the Viewer: Visual communication requires understanding that a business does not have to (or cannot expect to) explain everything to the viewer. What the imagery communicates must be as clearly determined ahead of time as possible (see #3).  However, visual communication relies on human interpretation (making it both a stronger and weaker communications tool… depending on how you want to think about that).


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