Is a picture worth a thousand words?

Has the world become too visual? 

That was the question posed by Will Self recently in the Point of View slot on BBC Radio 4. He argues that we have a world that is now too image-rich and puts the case that he now considers himself to be “post-image” (in the same way, I guess, that some deem Will Self’s latest novel to be “postmodern”.)

Now, it is obviously Will’s job in the Point of View slot to be provocative, but it does raise some interesting questions about text and image and whether, in today’s digital world, we have become too greedy for images as Will argues. 

It is easy to see how he could have arrived at this conclusion when you look at the proliferation of images in a world where digital natives are said to prefer to communicate visually. Even just looking at websites, many seem to be guilty of adding images just for the sake of it. How many corporate websites can you name that use meaningless stock imagery? 

Figure 1: Example of a stock image from HSBC’s homepage. 

On the other hand, we all know that pure uninterrupted text is really quite hard to read on screen as evidenced by the fact that printed books are still more popular than e-books, even among digital natives. All of the best practice guidelines call for breaking up text with bullet lists, images, and so on. No images at all would make the digital world pretty impenetrable. In fact, it is worth noting the irony of the fact that the online article version of Will’s radio talk was interspersed with photos to break up the text!

So is the world really too visual or do graphics and images play a valuable role in the digital world?

Using images online

Obviously, images – whether photographs, illustrations or other visual elements – are an essential element of the online experience, but how should they be used to best effect?

To grab attention

Graphical elements capture your attention – visual processing is faster and easier than reading. Careful use of images allows your reader to quickly scan, and get the gist of, an article or longer page by looking at the images and captions. They can then decide whether to invest the time in reading the full text in more depth. 

 

Figure 2: Example of an attention-grabbing image from Etsy.com

To provoke a reaction

Images speak to us on a visceral level. An image can cause an emotional reaction much more effectively than words. The effects of images can often be subtle and unexpected. For example, images that show a charity in action (such as health workers vaccinating children) can induce greater feelings of empathy than images of the “problem” (such as children in poverty). Changes such as this can result in increased online donations. 

To explain an idea or concept

Some things are just easier to show visually than to explain in words. Infographics are a great example of this, but it doesn’t have to be that complex…

Figure 3: Example of an image that is simpler than the textual equivalent from Billion Dollar Graphics

To reinforce branding

Subtle use of colours, fonts and styling in graphical elements can reinforce a brand and build credibility and trustworthiness. Studies show that sites that are perceived as being visually well designed are also perceived as being more credible

And when not to use images online

So, images can and should be a part of any online experience. But there are a couple of situations to guard against: 

  • Using images simply for the sake of breaking up a lengthy piece of text (like some of the images used in the online version of Will Self’s talk). The imagery used should add to the words in some way, either by explaining a point, aiding the reader in scanning the text or reinforcing a reaction. If it doesn’t achieve any of these, then consider a different image or a different way of breaking up the text (perhaps with headings);
  • Trying to make a site look “more visual”. This is the sin committed by many corporate sites using meaningless stock photography on home pages and landing pages. If there is not a relevant image to illustrate your asset-based lending services or your latest financial report, then don’t use one! Instead perhaps use an abstract graphic inspired by your corporate brand or rely on the text alone. 

Both of these situations can easily result in use of photos or images that feel false or out of place. People generally feel and respond more strongly towards images that are authentic. If care has not been taken in selecting the right image, it will not have the effect you want. 

In summary

Images can have strong cognitive and emotional effects that affect how we feel about and respond to digital experiences. But, the addition of even a few words can radically change how we interpret an image. So, it may be an obvious conclusion, but both words and pictures are an essential part of the online experience. Getting the balance right and using images for the right reasons is critical. 

Knowing your audience will help you to get the imagery right – cultural and generational differences will have a big impact on what will work. Having a strong content strategy will also help you to avoid using images for the sake it. Similarly, clear brand guidelines will help you to use other visual elements in place of stock photos or meaningless illustrations. Research will help you to determine the right images to use, and then testing can help you to fine-tune the details. A/B or multivariate testing can be a very powerful tool here for measuring the impact of subtly different images on people’s online behaviour. Get it right and you can make a big difference.