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Visual communication has evolved rapidly in the last few decades.
Some 40,000 years ago, cavemen used dirt mixed with saliva to draw pictures of animals on walls and rocks.
Fast forward to the mid-1900s, and the Don Drapers of the marketing world were using imagery and visual metaphors to alter people’s perception of the world and move them to specific actions–thereby, actually altering reality.
Jump to the present, and we find ourselves in the midst of the democratization of visual communication: What the printing press did for books, graphic software has done for visual communication. Users everywhere–not just marketing geniuses–can now create whatever they envision in their mind’s eye: images, videos, animations, infographics…
The lines between the audience and the producer have been blurred, and now you too can create ripples across the Web with visual content. Or communicate a truly memorable message that will stick in your audience’s mind for years to come.
But to do so in a way that resonates, you’ll need more than just the right software–you’ll need the ability to think visually.
In this post, we’ll show you how to leverage the power of visual metaphors and imagery to make a lasting impression on your viewers.
To master the art of visual communication, you first have to understand how our minds process information.
When we perceive an image or any other visual, we process it through the lens of our mental models. These are nothing more than simplified representations of the world around us, which includes people, places and things.
These internal images–which are made up of symbols and belief systems–helps us make sense of every new experience and new knowledge we take in every day. They help us make judgments and decisions, solve problems and direct our behavior.
While we would like to think that we have a complete and accurate mental model of the world, no one can imagine reality as it is or have a complete picture of it.
The good news is that we can influence other people’s mental models of the world and even deconstruct them. Since a person’s model is not set in stone and is subject to constant change, communication in the form of effective visuals can influence this malleable representation of the world.
One way to do this is through the use of visual metaphors and analogies. But I’m not talking about overused metaphors and clichés, such as “think outside of the box” or “put two and two together.” I’m talking about visual metaphors that bridge the gap between the new and the familiar. These types of images incorporate familiar elements, concepts or objects and then use them to build on the viewer’s previous knowledge.
Take, for example, the ad below. It builds on viewers’ knowledge of how news is captured and disseminated, but then fuses it with something unexpected. It brings to life the concept that news coverage places you right in the middle of the action.
But how do you arrive at these out-of-the-box ideas in the first place? According to writer Kate Evans, there a few tricks to simplifying this process:
To help you tap into your inner creative, we’ve compiled a list of some useful visual communication techniques, as exemplified by these creative and compelling ads, archived by the site Best Ads.
Further explanation of each of these advertising techniques can be found in Tim Collins’ book 100 Ways to Create a Great Ad.
Widely used by marketers, the visual metaphor is useful for communicating a product’s benefit by relating it to something different but with a similar quality.
In this ad for Bergedorfer Beer, for example, the care that goes into crafting a beer product is compared with the process of bringing a child into the world. While the metaphor of giving birth to something is overused, it is effective here due to the unconventional imagery.
Another way to catch your audience’s attention is with a visual simile. Although similar to the visual metaphor in that it makes connections between two sometimes unrelated things, the visual simile presents an object so that it looks like something else.
In the ad above, the unique denim accents of the Volkswagen Beetle Denim are made to look like the dashed lines in the middle of a road.
Although your space may be limited, you can also tell stories with visuals, as seen in the highly effective visual metaphor above by Save the Children. In a single glance, you are not only made privy to a child’s traumatic childhood, but also made aware of the fact that every experience in children’s lives is like a seed that is sown in the terrain of their hearts.
Like with words, visual analogies can be used to compare two things that are seemingly unrelated. In the above ad for WWF, for example, the delicate ecosystem is compared to a game of Jenga: When one piece is removed, the whole structure comes tumbling down.
For decades, marketers have stoked fear in consumers by exaggerating the negative consequences of not using their product. In the ad above for Acnes Sealing Jell, we are not only presented with the dramatized consequence of not using a certain product (the lack of a social life), we are also presented with the way to solve it and the happy resolution: “Shame no more.”
This ad for Jordan Insurance Company may cause many viewers to do a double take, if not for its ingenuity, then at least for its sheer oddity. With the editing software available today, we’re only limited by our imaginations in the quest to surprise and intrigue viewers.
When you communicate with the fewest number of elements possible, then you’re resorting to an technique called minimalism. In this ad for Tic Tac, all we need to see is this ingenious use of negative space in the form of a the mint to understand its message: Be prepared for when the moment comes.
In this ad for Ikea, three words and an effective image are all that’s needed to send a crystal clear message. Through the effective use of contrast, the viewer immediately receives the message that Ikea is the place to go to set yourself apart from the rest.
One type of visual simile that is often used to communicate visually is the use of typography that looks like an object. In this ad for LG, for example, a common argument between couples is spelled out with dust in the form of letters, signifying that its Hom-Bot can do more than just clean your floor–it can eliminate unnecessary fights over domestic tasks.
Although some may roll their eyes at this ad for 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey, visual puns are effective for getting a quick laugh out of viewers. These are often used to bring figures of speech to life, such as an “uneven playing field” or a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Visual communicators often play with double meanings to create tongue-in-cheek ads like this one for Volkswagen.
For decades, advertisers have been using hyperbole, or visual exaggerations, to communicate product benefits. In this ad for Nikon, viewers instantly get that taking selfies with their Nikon camera is like carrying around a professional photography crew.
Combining contrasting or mismatched visuals can be used to drive home a point, as in the ad above for National Geographic. Other examples of this include combining contrasting icons, such as the face of Clint Eastwood superimposed on the face of Che Guevara.
While many ads aim to quickly drive home a point, others encourage viewers to engage with the copy to uncover hidden messages, as in the case of this clever ad for TriHonda.
At first, readers may see a succession of random letters, but the use of contrasting colors then leads them to read first the word “email” and then the word “girl,” followed by the cautionary message, “You can’t see both at the same time.”
Comparisons between products and brands is an oft-used technique in the advertising world. In this simple but effective ad for Penguin Books, the visual representations of ratings for books and their film counterparts makes the point that books are often the better version of the story.
Icons and symbols can also be used to make amazingly simply but effective ads. This ad for Play-Doh highlights the benefits of this classic toy by comparing it with its digital counterparts.
Sometimes shocking facts make the best headlines of all. In this ad for DEPAUL, a pair of statistics and an effective image are sufficient to make a convincing argument.
One way to attract the attention of otherwise uninterested audience members is to piggyback off of a popular character, sitcom or movie. In this case, Band Aid effectively leverages an association with the Incredible Hulk to make the point that its band-aids are extremely flexible.
Using odd or surreal images, as in this ad for Bench Fix, is a surefire way to catch viewers’ attention, especially younger ones who are closed off to more conventional advertising.
The most effective ads suggest certain situations and then leave us, the viewers, to imagine the rest. In this ad for NIKOL, for example, the form of a toilet seat and the drawings of dozens of strangers lead viewers to imagine the consequences of not using this product.
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