Visual communication is many times more powerful than verbal and written communication. People remember 10% of what they hear, 30% of what they read, and 80% of what they see and do. 1 According to the book Brain Rules, “hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it; add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.”

It’s much easier to remember information that is visually presented because visuals have a direct route to long-term memory. This is evidenced by the fact that memory recall can be considerably improved by using visualization, for example by using the method of loci:

In basic terms, it is a method of memory enhancement which uses visualization to organize and recall information. A lot of memory contest champions claim to use this technique to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. […] In a simple method of doing this, contestants, using various strategies well before competing, commit to long-term memory a unique vivid image associated with each item. 

There are good reasons for why this is possible. The visual cortex of the brain in primates is heavily developed. Vision is our dominant sense; up to 30% of the brain’s cortex is dedicated to processing visual input either directly or indirectly, as compared with just 8% for hearing. 2 In fact, research estimates that up to 85% of our perception, learning, cognition and activities are mediated through vision. 3

This means that the more the visuals used in communications are able to speak to someone, the better the message is communicated to them, and the more likely they are to remember it. This is why “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and why powerful visuals are very important in communications — especially advertising and marketing.

It’s also very important to realize that powerful and effective visuals speak a lot more to the subconscious mind than to the conscious mind. The conscious mind is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our total awareness.

The model of the mind as known in Freudian psychology

The model of the mind as known in Freudian psychology

The subconscious mind is many times more powerful than the conscious mind, and picks up a lot of details that the conscious mind doesn’t notice. 4 For example, quite often people will be able to indicate whether they like an image, but they may not be able to articulate exactly why that is the case. At best they’ll be able to say that it “feels” better. This is because the subconscious mind made the decision for them based on the vast amounts of additional data it processed — data that the person is very rarely consciously aware of in concrete terms. They’re only consciously aware of this data in terms of emotions or feelings. 5 This is the reason why powerful and effective visuals always speak to the emotions and feelings of a person.

When it comes to photography, what can influence the subconscious mind into finding an image pleasing can be related to the composition, aesthetics (sharpness where expected, absence of artifacts (compression, noise, posterization), etc.), the mood or atmosphere conveyed in a photo, the use of lighting, the use of negative space, subject isolation from the background, the absence of distracting elements etc. Examples related to design are the use of white space, appropriate typography, clean and precise masking of product photos, etc.

One very important contributing factor that applies in general is the use of colors. According to the book “The Power of Color”, color accounts for 60% of acceptance or rejection of an object. Understanding color theory and applying it to the design of marketing collateral, or when planning a photo shoot (colors used on the set, clothes, make-up etc.) or when color grading photos and video footage, can contribute a lot to the impact the final result has on the viewer.

Another very important contributing factor that applies in general is the uniqueness of the visuals. In order to gain access to the long-term memory of the viewer, visuals have to be very unique and vivid. This is one area in life where it certainly pays off to be different and stand out from the rest. All too often people like to “play it safe,” at the expense of bolder and more innovative ideas. Ask any designer or professional photographer, and they’ll tell you that it can often take quite a bit of effort to convince clients to try something that’s a little more unconventional. It can be risky, but if executed well it can pay off handsomely.

Another contributing factor, related more to photography and especially relevant today, is the authenticity of the images that are used in communications. It turns out that people can easily tell if a picture is authentic or not. For example, take all those websites on the Internet these days that are using stock photos with beautiful, perfect looking, smiling men and women. As soon as people see such images they know subconsciously that they’re not real. This has become known as “stock photo blindness.” It’s especially bad when these images are used on corporate websites, where it’s easy to tell that the photos used have nothing to do with the company (for example, people in the photos don’t even work there, or the offices and facilities seen in the photos are not really theirs). As Paul Melcher writes:

Once identified as a stock photo, an image is immediately associated with a lie and dismissed. Whatever the product or service associated with it is also degraded. The reason Instagram or Instagram-like image work so well is that — for now — they are associated with authenticity. That originality of view point creates curiosity that can then be converted into a purchase.

Indeed, as discussed above, the effectiveness of communication depends mostly on the visuals — if people dismiss those, the entire message loses its impact or is completely dismissed. And if the visuals are associated with a lie in the mind of the viewer, the associated company, product or service even loses credibility and trust — a very serious problem. Using photos that convey authenticity on the other hand has a much more positive impact as Melcher points out:

A recent study revealed by Advertising Age shows that compared to an Instagram image, a stock photo provokes only 1/4 of the reaction. In other words “Using regular photos, the company saw a 2.35% click-through rate. With Instagram-style shots, that increased to as high as 8%. When tying ad performance to sales, Laundry Service saw conversion rates increase by 25%.” That is a huge difference. And when that difference is translated in revenue, it has huge impact.

This is why it may not always be a good idea to use stock images and to be very cautious with their use. It’s best to use images that “keep it real,” so to speak, and that convey authenticity.

Based on everything discussed above, it’s clear that for any communication to be effective, the use of powerful visuals is an essential requirement. It enables access to the long-term memory of the viewer and allows for making an impression that lasts longer. According to Aristotle “there can be no words without images” and “thought is impossible without an image”; communication starts with an image. So if you make sure that your visuals are the best they can be, you’ve already done most of the work required for effective communication.

Footnotes

  1. 1^From a paper by Paul Martin Lester Ph.D. titled “Syntactic Theory of Visual Communication” (PDF):

    Educational psychologist Jerome Bruner of New York University cites studies that show persons only remember ten percent of what they hear, 30 percent of what they read, but about 80 percent of what they see and do.

  2. 2^From the paper “Comparative mapping of higher visual areas in monkeys and humans” published in TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences (Vol.8 No.7, July 2004):

    The visual cortex is heavily developed in primates: approximately 50% of cerebral cortex in macaque and 20–30% in humans is devoted to vision, compared with about 3% for audition in monkeys and 8% in humans.

  3. 3^From the book “Minor Traumatic Brain Injury Handbook: Diagnosis and Treatment” (page 311):

    “Vision is our dominant sense. More than sight measured in terms of visual acuity, vision is the process of deriving meaning from what is seen. It is a complex, learned, and developed set of functions that involve a multitude of skills. Research estimates that 80% to 85% of our perception, learning, cognition, and activities are mediated through vision.” — Thomas Politzer, O.D., FCOVD, FAAO

    There’s evidence showing that even the ancient civilizations that existed many thousands of years ago knew that most of our learning happens through vision, or in other words, that we build our consciousness primarily through vision. I discuss this in details in my post on the All Seeing Eye.

  4. 4^From the book Emotionomics by Dan Hill:

    Conscious thought is the tip of the iceberg. Both the sensory and emotional brains operate subconsciously. In all, less than .0005 per cent of our mental activity qualifies as fully conscious. According to the latest estimates, the brain takes in 400 billion bytes of information per second, but only consciously processes 2,000 (What, 2004). The implication? We are much less aware than we prefer to believe. Likewise, the eye picks up 10,000,000 bytes of visual information per second but only 40 bytes per second become mental images; that’s a ratio of 250,000 to one (Zimmermann, 1986; Medgadget.com, 2006).

    According to stem cell biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton quoted in “Scientists Finally Show How Your Thoughts Can Cause Specific Molecular Changes To Your Genes”:

    The major problem is that people are aware of their conscious beliefs and behaviors, but not of subconscious beliefs and behaviors. Most people don’t even acknowledge that their subconscious mind is at play, when the fact is that the subconscious mind is a million times more powerful than the conscious mind and that we operate 95 to 99 percent of our lives from subconscious programs.

  5. 5^Another example where this is also the case is with the use of subliminal messages. Unfortunately these techniques can also be dangerous in the hands of people with unethical motivations. For example, subliminal messages can be used to influence or manipulate people into taking certain actions.