Visual communication is any form of communication that conveys an idea through visual aid. It therefore, relies purely on vision.
Types of visual communication include: drawing, graphic design, colors, signs, symbols, illustration, typography, etc.
A good piece of visual communication should be able to easily convey its message to the audience. However, sometimes that depends on personal preferences and artistic skills.
In everyday life, we communicate both through visual communication and language. However, we tend to forget that we do. When asked to give an example of a method of communication, people generally reply “language”. We take visual communication for granted because it happens unconsciously most of the time.
In Medieval times, most people were not literate so Christian churches told stories of the saints and angels by images on stained glass.
On the streets, we understand that the color red means stop and the color green means go without having to think about it.
When our USB lights up, we know that it is now connected to our computer and ready to be used.
Seeing athletes on television, we know the one with a golden medal is the winner.
In a program like Adobe PhotoShop, its toolbox has only symbols representing the use of each tool.
Aldous Huxley was a famous English writer who was also famous for exploring different aspects of visual communication. He was the author of Brave New World and The Art of Seeing.
He wrote in total 11 novels, seven short stories, seven poems, three pieces of travel writing, six theatrical plays, 21 essays, 47 articles, two philosophical books, two non-fictions, two children’s books, 11 screenplays, and five collections of work.
When he was 17, he suffered from keratitis punctata, an illness that causes inflammation in the eye’s cornea (the front part of the eye). It “left [him] practically blind for two to three years”. (Huxley, 1939) This blindness saved him from the First World War and also set him off on an exploration of the world of visual communication.
According to Huxley, ‘seeing’ is the sum of sensing, selecting, and perceiving. One of his most famous quotes is “The more you see, the more you know.”
Max Wertheimer is a Czech-born psychologist who is said to be the father of Gestalt psychology, for he was one of the three founders (along with Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang KÖhler).
Gestalt psychology emphasizes our tendency to integrate pieces of information into meaningful whole. (Gestalt is a German word for “form or “whole”.) Gestalt psychology can be used to explain our perception.
- Figure-ground is an organization of the visual field into objects (figures) that stand out from their surroundings (ground).
- Grouping is a perceptual tendency to organize stimuli into coherent groups. You can group stimuli by:
- Proximity: to group near-by objects together.
- Similarity: to group similar objects together.
- Continuity: to group objects that seem to be continued from each other together.
- Connectedness: to group objects that seem to be connected to each other together.
- Closure: to group objects that are organized to look like they form another figure.
Visual language is when images are used to communicate.
Basically, this can be done by visualizing an idea instead of verbalizing it as we normally do. Then express that visual that we have created.
Dreaming is actually a beginning. The images we see in our dreams are practically the same as the images we imagine when we are awake. (Hiller, 2000) Our dreams can occur with or without sounds, words or colors. The difference is that when we are awake, there are always immediate perception, mood and brief memories in the foreground. (Edelman, 2000) Daydreaming is another example, for it is projected straight from the imagination. (Gombrich, 1960)
Our brain is separated into two hemispheres that are connected together by neural fibers called corpus callosum. The left hemisphere is the principal one, for it is responsible for activities like reading, writing, speaking, understanding and reasoning. The right hemisphere, which is random and intuitive, is the minor hemisphere.
Obviously, the left hemisphere is the crucial one. We need it in order to complete our daily routine. However, many people look pass the importance of the right hemisphere.
In order to be creative, we have to train our right hemisphere. This is the part of our brain that is responsible for visual language. It thinks in images.
One good way of training our right hemisphere is to draw with it.
All we have to do is to find an object or a person, anything really, and draw it. Draw it the way we see it and not what we think it is supposed to look like.
For example, try pointing your fingers at your face and draw it. If you let your left hemisphere take over, your fingers will look crooked because you will draw your nails the way you know them, full square or circular-shaped nails. But if you use your right hemisphere and draw exactly what you see, you will end up with only the tip of your nails.
One suggestion is not to talk while drawing, because talking requires the use of the left hemisphere that we are trying to ignore.
Visual literacy is “ability to construct meaning from visual images” (Giorgis, Johnson, Bonomo, Colbert, & al, 1999: 146), which includes the ability “to understand and use visuals for intentionally communicating with others” (Ausburn & Ausburn, 1978: 291). it is all about interpreting and producing images. But it also requires the ability to judge whether a piece of visual communication is accurate and valid. There is no solid discipline in interpreting or understanding but rather emerges from many different disciplines including: visual arts, art history, aesthetics, linguistics, literacy, philosophy, psychology, perceptual physiology, sociology, cultural studies, media studies, instructional design, semiotics, communications studies, and educational technology. (Bamford, 2003)
We now live in an era of visual culture (Ausburn, 1978: 287), which has been influencing our attitudes, beliefs and life-style.
According to Dr Anne Bamford, the director of Visual Arts at Art and Design University of Technology Sydney, visual communication includes gestures, objects, signs and symbols. (2003) Some examples of visual signs are dance, hairstyles, monuments, lighting, computer games, interior designs, etc. and visual communication is also an effective way of teaching and studying as well.
Probably without realizing it, humans have relied on visual literacy in everyday life to read maps, x-ray films, mathematical/chemical formulas, etc.
Children’s development and visual literacy
6-7 weeks: able to create memory pictures
- allows them to discriminate their mother’s face from other women
12 months: able to read graphic imagery
- allows them to understand that a picture of a banana signifies a real banana
3 years: able to understand what graphic imagery intends to communicate, and to use and understand visual symbols
- allows them to know that the ‘m’ shape denotes a bird (Bamford, 2003)
Syntax and semantics of visual literacy
Syntax: the form or building blocks of an image (Bamford, 2003)
Examples: dimension, light, framing, color, line, contrast, symbolism, metaphor, parody, background
Semantics: the way images relate more broadly to issues in the world to gain meaning. It is created through form and structure; culturally constructed ideas; and social interaction. (Bamford, 2003)
Visual tools help organize our way of thinking, which helps with learning.
According to Model Learning, we can organize our thoughts in four ways:
- Finding causes and effects (2007)
When these tools are applied in a systematic way, they will help us to create new ideas, understand information, manage information, analyze, reason, control our thinking, plan to communicate, explain (and therefore, persuade) and lastly, to improve our memory. (Model Learning, 2007)
Visual tools lead to successful learning.
Visual forms “are not perceived differently from colors or brightness. They are sense qualities, and the visual character of geometry consists in these sense qualities”. (Folkert & Atley, 2009)
A book has one visual form if we look at it when we hold it steadily in our hands, but if we tilt it slightly to the left, its visual form changes. (Hellie, 2005)
Visual form may include lines, shape, contrast, scale, texture, etc.
For example, a straight line gives a sense of properness and sometimes even restriction, while a curved line evokes creativity and encourages imagination. (Buzan, 2002)
The forming of lines can be effective in many ways. It is used in optical illusion, for example.
Typography is the art of arranging, designing and modifying type.
It involves typefaces, point size, line length, leading (line spacing), tracking (adjusting space between groups of letters) and kerning (adjusting space between pairs of letters). (Pipes, 1997)
The first typography was punches used to make seals and currency in ancient times.
The contemporary typography study is very broad. It includes: typesetting and type design, handwriting and calligraphy, graffiti, inscriptional and architectural lettering, poster design, business communications and promotional collateral, advertising, wordmarks and logotypes, apparel, labels on maps, vehicle instrument panels, motion picture films and television, industrial design, and modern poetry.
A good typography should be legible and readable.
To read more about typography in advertising, click here.
Colors derive from the spectrum of light.
Each color depends on the wavelength of light.
Different objects reflect different amount of light and therefore, have different colors. For example, an object we see as red reflects all colors but red into our eyes. We see black when no light is reflected and white when all colors in light are reflected.
There are three colors in light: red, blue and green.
Not red, blue and yellow as most people might think. In Art classes, we learn how to mix colors from the primary colors red, blue and yellow. However, it is different in light. Colors are mixed from red, blue and green.
This can explain one of the questions the New Radicals posed in their song ‘Someday We’ll Know’: Why is the sky blue?
The atmosphere is made of many gas elements, including oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. In fact, approximately 80% of the atmosphere is nitrogen.
Nitrogen has no problem letting the colors red and green in light through. However, it scatters the color blue all over. So the colors red and green come directly down at the earth. (Green mostly goes to leaves of the trees.) And the color blue just floats around in the air. So when we look up at the sky, we see blue.
When the sun is setting or rising, it moves further away from us to the opposite side of the globe. Therefore, light from the sun has to travel a longer distance to our eyes. Blue gets scattered more. Green still goes to plants. Which leaves red. And that is why the sky turns red when the sun sets or rises.
Did you know that the color with the most energy is lime green? A red laser usually has three times more energy than a green laser and still looks darker to the eye.
The part of the eye that is sensitive to light is the retina, where visual information process begins. In the retina are the rods and cones. The rods are at the peripheral retina. They work when there is not much light and therefore operate twilight vision. The rods detect white, black and gray. The cones on the other hand work when there is enough light. They detect colors and details.
So light enters the eye and triggers photochemical reaction in the rods and cones. Then chemical reaction will activate bipolar cells, which in turn activate ganglion cells. The ganglion cells converge to form optic nerves. Once the cones receive color information, they send it to the brain via the optic nerves. They transmit these neural impulses to the visual cortex in occipital lobe.
And that is how you see colors.
The brain is actually what determines what you see. Not the eyes.
The brain also has three opponent processes for colors: a red-green channel, a blue-yellow channel and a black-white channel. This theory explains why we cannot see a reddish green color, for example. If you have a text written in red, for example, and stare at it for a period of time. Then look away from it at a white background, you will see the text written lightly in green.
Color theory deals with color mixing and the visual impact of colors.
As mentioned earlier, the three colors in light are red, blue and green. Mixing the colors of light is called additive color mixing, while mixing paint is called subtractive color mixing.
Most color effects are based on contrasts on three relative attributes: lightness (light versus dark or white versus black), saturation (intense versus dull) and hue (red, orange, yellow, green, blue or purple).
Many people believe (or are taught in Art classes) that the three pure primary colors can mix all possible colors. Any failure to do so is due to the imperfection of either the paint or the mixer himself. However, the three primary colors can mix only to a limited range of colors, which is called a gamut. A gamut is smaller than the range of colors that human eye can see. The primary colors needed to mix those colors out of the gamut are imaginary.
Warm colors are opposite to cool colors. For example, red is opposite to green and orange is opposite to blue.
Using colors to communicate
Many communicators use colors as a tool to send messages visually to the audience who unconsciously receives them.
Blue is a trustworthy, dependable and committed color. It is perceived as constant, for it is the color of the sky and the ocean. It is also many people’s favorite color. It is calming and cooling, and suggests our body to rest. It aids intuition and is the least gender specific color (has equal appeal to both men and women).
Green is the second favorite color after blue. It signifies nature and is an ideal backdrop in interior design. People are used to seeing green. It is a color of peace and ecology. It is soothing, relaxing, with a sense of renewal and harmony. It can help reduce depression and anxiety.
Yellow is a color of optimism, enlightenment and happiness. It helps spark creative thoughts, for it is mentally stimulating. It stimulates the nervous system, activates memory and encourages communication. A golden yellow can signify a positive future.
Orange is a fun, warm and energetic color. It triggers mostly a strong like or dislike response. It stimulates activity and appetite. It also encourages socialization.
Red has the most personal associations than other colors. Red is exciting and energetic. It draws attention and is stimulating. It increases enthusiasm, encourages action and confidence, which gives a sense of protection from fear and anxiety.
Purple has a sense of mystic and royal qualities, and therefore is often used by creative and eccentric types. It tends to be the favorite color of adolescent girls. It also offers a sense of spirituality. It has the combination of stimulation from red and calm from blue. It is uplifting, calming to mind and nerves, and encourages creativity.
Brown suggests stability, reliability and approachability. It is the color of the earth and is therefore associated with natural and organic things. It gives a feeling of wholesomeness and a sense of orderliness.
White is a color of purity, cleanliness and neutrality. It aids mental clarity, encourages one to defeat obstacles and enables fresh beginnings. Doctors wear white coats. Traditional wedding dresses are also white. And an image of a safe and lovely home includes a white picket fence.
Gray is a timeless, practical and solid color. It can mix well with any color. This is the reason why it is a favorite suit color. However, people rarely name gray as their favorite color possibly because it is associated with loss and depression. It gives a sense of unsettling and expectant.
Black is authoritative and powerful. It can evoke strong emotions. It gives a sense of inconspicuous, a restful emptiness and mysterious possibility. Black clothes are thinning and more sophisticated. (Color_Expert, 2009)
People in the world are separated into groups according to their skin color. Tanned skin suggests wealth, while pale suggests unhealthiness. Blondes are known as the ‘dumb’ ones and white hair proposes intelligence.
Advertising & Visual Communication
Visual metaphors are used a lot in advertising. (Boozer, Wyld, & Grant, 1991) They help elaborate the message intended to send through to the audience and increase the chance of persuading them. They are likely to increase the cognition value of the message, which leads to cognitive elaboration when the audience processes the message. (Jeong, 2006) Messaris’ studies of visual persuasion show that the cognitive elaboration achieved by visual argumentation of an advertisement leads to a greater persuasiveness of visual propositions. (1997)
Through visual tools, an advertisement can suggest its attitude, the brand attitude, product belief and purchase intention. (Jeong, 2006)
Phillips & McQuarrie analyzed US magazine advertisements from 1954 to 1999 and found out that many rhetorical figures, including visual metaphors, were widespread and even increasing throughout the period. (2002)
Message cognition value (MCV) is the structural and formal features of the message related to the complexity and implicitness of the message. (Harrington et al., 2003)
Complex and implicit messages have high MCV, while simple and explicit messages have low MCV.
However, MCV does not mean quality or content of message.
Visual metaphors can increase MCV of an advertisement without changing its original message or product claim. (Jeong, 2006)
Dual processing models explains the reason why high MCV can lead to greater persuasiveness of a message.
Dual processing models include the elaboration likelihood model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1981) and heuristic-system model (Chaiken, 1980).
They propose two ways of persuasion: central and peripheral (ELM) or systematic and heuristic (HSM).
The models suggest that the persuasiveness of a message depends on the amount of thought the audience puts into the message.
Peripheral processing or heuristic cues may persuade the audience, but central and systematic processing still has more likelihood of more persistent belief and attitude change.
Advertisements with visual metaphors force the audience to elaborate on what is already given. The audience has to consider the message more thoughtfully and actively respond to it. They are therefore more likely to believe the message.
Furthermore, visual argumentation requires the audience to interpret the message according to their own construction meaning. And people are more likely to be persuaded by the proposition they have constructed themselves. (Messaris, 1997)
A research was conducted where three groups of audience were to be exposed to three different sets of advertisements for the same product: toothpaste. One advertisement was completely verbal, claiming “Kingfisher toothpaste will make your teeth pearly white”. The second one was moderately verbal with only “Flash ‘em” as a verbal claim. The last one was non-verbal, which associated toothpaste with a pearl necklace.
The research showed that the audience understood more of the higher level of verbal anchoring advertisements but liked and believed them less.
This suggests that the persuasive effects depend on the visual argumentation’s implicit characteristic that leads to the audience’s active participation. (Phillips, 2000)
Metaphors lead to high MCV because they demand great cognitive activity and elaboration. Artful deviations also cause pleasure of the text that is linked to the advertisement. (McQuarrie & Mick, 1999)
Metaphors kind of take the audience slightly away from reality, for it is wrong in its literal sense but makes sense in a whole different way. They therefore give the audience a positive attitude toward an advertisement, which increases the source credibility.
A simple reaction like “Oh! I got it!” from the audience can increase pleasure in seeing the advertisement.
People or advertisements that use metaphors are viewed as having high creativity and seem more credible. The audience also feels that they share some commonality. (Jeong, 2006)
Metaphors in general are also more persuasive and effective that direct claims.
Exercises in visual communication
- Looking at usual things in an unusual way, e.g. traffic lights with colors other than red, amber and green
- Applying opposities, e.g. a huge dwarf, tiny giant, steel egg, feather-light brick
- Taking a truth about the product and demonstrating it in a physical way, e.g. creamy beer turned into an ice cream
Here are some examples of great ads that employ visual communication: