1,000 Words About Pictures

Do “people” really prefer visual Web content to text?

Me, I’m an outlier. I find a long, dense block of text as tempting as a hot fudge sundae with a cherry on top. Still I’m inclined to believe there’s some truth to the common wisdom that a majority of people absorb and retain information better when it is presented visually. So why do Web sites that feature video, dozens of photos, and very few words so often subject us to a bad experience?

Technology makes it easy to produce Web sites, video, and infographics. People seem to have less anxiety about snapping photos than they do about writing. However, most people have less training in visual communication than in writing, and it shows.

Here are the three most common errors I see in visual design on the Web:

Problem #1: Illustrated verbal metaphors. You’ve undoubtedly seen some version of this image — a pair of hands holding a mound of soil with a green sprout growing out of it. My dynamo Web designer Jessica Albon wrote, “Stock photography can be great, but more often it’s generic. If you were on a site that had a photo like [that], what would you think they did? Business consulting? Environmental cleanup? Daycare? (I’ve seen this type of photo on sites for all three types of companies–and many others.)”

It’s as if the people designing the page thought:

“What would say ‘rich, deep’ experience that grows in the customer’s mind?” or “What says ‘health’”?

“Oh, yeah, dark, fertile soil!”

And that’s not the only such cliched image. How about:

  • Corporate team members poring over documents (“What says ‘collaboration’?”)
  • Fit young woman sitting in lotus position alone on the beach (“What says ‘peaceful, healthy’?”)

There’s not much visual communication happening there; the pictures symbolize verbal ideas.  A skillful writer might indeed use some combination of words to compare a sprout bursting from the soil with a growing business. The photograph is often a non sequitur.

The cure: Think like a filmmaker. Successful films tell stories through a series of visual images informed by dialogue and music. The words in the script give the director cues for things that will actually be seen. Films use symbolism, but the people and objects you see on screen are not just metaphors. Once the shot has been transformed into an image, that image can not be completely captured in words at all. This is one of the most famous shots from Citizen Kane.

Here is the passage in the script that forms the blueprint for that shot.

Camera now pulls back further, showing Thatcher standing before a table on which is his stove-pipe hat and an imposing multiplicity of official-looking documents.  He is 26 and, as might be expected, a very stuffy young man, already very expensive and conservative looking, even in Colorado.

For a peek into the minds of two master visual thinkers and storytellers, check out the film, Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Problem #2: Video that doesn’t communicate visually. Many Web sites link to a YouTube or Vimeo file of the author sitting at a desk and speaking into the camera. The shots are poorly composed. For example, the edge of some unidentifiable piece of furniture (but not the whole object) pokes into the corner of the frame. The lighting is off, with distracting shadows visible on the walls. Sometimes the video is blurry. Ironically, these authors neglect the visual dimension of the content.

Worse, this is not really visual communication at all. It’s oral communication bolstered by images. The same applies to a person reading from a PowerPoint. Even when there are a few slides of charts, graphs, or pictures, the dominant mode in these slide presentations is auditory.

The cure: Do video right or not at all. If you just want to talk, try a podcast instead of a video. If you want to give people a lot of information, written copy is more effective than an hour’s worth of reading from a PowerPoint. Use video where it adds value: in a demonstration,  like how to braid hair; in a mini-story with scenes; or when your talk makes entertaining use of props. If you use video for a lecture or interview, learn good technique or hire a professional producer.

Problem #3: Lack of visual design. The visual dimension of a Web site goes beyond the subject of the pictures posted there. In fact, a Web site communicates visually with no representational images at all. Typography, layout, white space, choice of color all contribute. The style of the images matters, too. Cartoonish illustrations send a different message than realistic ones and photographs send a different message than illustrations.

The cure: Don’t stop with pictures. Even better — don’t start with pictures. If you’re a wedding photographer or painter, images should probably dominate your Web site. If you are marketing yourself as the only psychotherapist in your city specializing in support groups for narcoleptics, you probably need to explain that in words. Of course the visual quality of your site, the “look-and-feel,” should match the quality of your message. Before prospective clients or referral sources even read the text, they should get the impression that you are caring and wise and professional. They should not think they accidentally surfed to the Web site of a rock band.

In sum:

  • Recognize when words should predominate. If that is the case, write or hire a writer.
  • When making a video, give people something to see.
  • To tell a story in pictures, make a logical connection between the image and your offer.
  • Finally, respect the discipline of visual design. An artist or graphic designer can do a lot more for you than a WordPress theme and stock photos.

I hope this post has been as filling — if not as tasty — as a hot fudge sundae with a cherry on top. I’ll spare you the picture.