Why visual communication matters

What role does visual communication play in marketing? What about communication and branding? Is visual communication necessary? Should companies invest in design? When one works in the field, the answers to these and other similar questions are self-evident. So every time I get asked something like this, it kind of startles me. It’s a bit like a child asking about something grown-ups take for granted. But as people keep asking, I might as well answer once more.

Photo by Mike Johnson @ sxc.hu
Photo: Mike Johnson @ sxc.hu

To help you understand, forget visual communication for a moment. Instead, think about meeting someone for the first time. What do you do? Perhaps you shake hands, and perhaps utter a short greeting. Before they tell you anything about themselves, you have already formed an impression of this person. You take in all the visual cues and evaluate them automatically, even if you aren’t conscious of the process. In addition to the visual cues, of course you also receive signals from their handshake, the way they smell, the tone of their voice and so on. But let’s concentrate on the visuals for now.

Photo by Jarlehm @ Wikimedia Commons.
Would you go to a job interview looking like this? Photo: Jarlehm@Wikimedia Commons

How do they look physically: short? tall? plump? muscular? attractive? What is their posture like: slouching? standing tall? What kind of emotional state they are in: tired? energetic? happy? sad? stressed? angry? What about the clothes they wear: casual? business? worn or ragged? expensive? old-fashioned? What do their facial expressions and other things tell you about their intentions: do they like you? resent you? do they find you attractive? Based on how we judge the other person, our attitude and behaviour towards them changes.

We do this all the time. And, even more importantly, we know that we ourselves are being judged just the same all the time. We also instinctively know that there are occasions when these things matter even more.

Think about job interviews. Or first dates. Or speaking in public. You will use a lot of energy and time to ensure you’ve showered and shaved, brushed your teeth, chosen the right clothes, put on make up and so on. Because you know the day will be won or lost not only by what you say, but also by how you look and present yourself.

We are also aware that different situations require different types of preparation and clothes. A job interview in the business sector requires different clothes than interview at a design agency or at the local coffee shop. We also realise that we will be judged to the other person’s standards, regardless of our personal tastes. So even if you like your music heavy, dark, and brutal, you probably won’t go to a business sector job interview looking like the guys from Immortal.

Photo by Greg Smith @ Flickr
How many records you think this guy would sell? Photo: Greg Smith @ Flickr

On the other hand, if you are being interviewed as the possible new front man of a metal band, or you are going to a heavy metal concert, you will definitely not put on your suit and tie. And if you indeed get to be in the band, when you go to the stage you might even put on your corpse paint, because your point is to shock, entertain, and generally look cool (and perhaps kvlt) to your fans. Who knows, you might end up selling hundreds of thousands, or even millions of records.

There is no right or wrong style. Just appropriate styles for each occasion. For each audience.

Now, your company does not wear clothes. And it does not shake hands. (Employees of the company will of course, and therefore getting their behaviour and uniforms just right is also vital.)  Instead the way most people will “meet” your company is through various visual channels: website, print advertisement, TV ads, logo, letters and so on.

The human mind wasn’t build by evolution to treat companies differently from people. Thus, the same process of instantaneous judgement which happens when people meet, also happens when people “meet” companies. While there might be some differences the overall process is more or less the same.

In both human and corporate relations the first impressions are vital. Without paying attention to visual communication you risk losing that golden opportunity. Of course, proper appearances have to be maintained later as well. A CEO shouldn’t one day arrive to work looking like a hobo. And a metal musician can’t in the middle of a tour switch his leather and spikes stage outfit to pink overalls (except in some weirdly modified or ironic way). In the same way, a company’s visual look has to be built and maintained consistently.

So, in a nutshell, visual communication makes up the clothes of your company. It forms the basis of how people will perceive your company. That is why there is no escaping visual communication. The only choice is between doing it well and doing it badly.

Corporate logos

It takes time and practice to build up a sensitivity to visual communication. That is why you shouldn’t simply trust your own, or your nearest colleague’s, taste in doing it. It is not enough that something just “looks good” to you. Just like in the clothing example above, you need to forget your own tastes and think about your target audience. A professional of visual communication will tell you what works for your audience.

Once again, there is no right or wrong style. Just appropriate styles for each target audience.

Metal band logos

Visual communication, just as clothing, usually employs various stylistic and genre conventions. Just look at how the logos in the two figures above show similarities and form stylistic groups. You can compare it to how all businessmen look more or less the same. But the really smart ones still manage to stand out from the crowd. That is why using professionals is so important. They will choose the right visual style/genre for your company or product while being distinct from the competition.

Overall branding, of course, is a much larger issue. Building a brand includes everything that affects how people perceive your company/product. (More on that another time.) But because visual communication forms such an unavoidable layer between your company and consumers, it is really essential part of branding and should not be ignored.

Don’t let your company, organisation, or products go around in raggedy clothes.