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Visual communication refers to the process of using visual elements such as images, symbols, diagrams, charts, typography, photographs, and colours to convey a message to the target audience. In today’s world of multimedia and complex information, it is essential to communicate effectively. Visual communication helps in achieving this goal. It transcends language barriers to convey information and aids the target audience to perform a desired action such as view, click, make a purchase, and so on. Visual communication examples include the use of traffic signage to ensure road safety and the use of symbols for product labelling. Visual communication design combines the use of design principles and storytelling to deliver the message more effectively and quickly than text and helps retain it for a longer period of time.
Some advantages of visual communication can be summarised as:
Visual communication designers develop various forms of visual content, such as infographics, flyers, brochures, pamphlets, and videos, for sectors such as healthcare, education, food and beverages, tourism, and hospitality.
The history of visual communication dates back to antiquity. Its earliest forms include cave paintings and pictograms. However, the emergence of paintings with woodblocks proved to be a turning point in the history of print media as it allowed printed words and symbols to be shared, reproduced, and preserved for the first time. The advent of the printing press in the 15th century opened floodgates for the mass production of newspapers, magazines, and books with reduced costs and wider accessibility. It also led to the development of typography, giving rise to practical and decorative typefaces, along with a lighter, more ordered page layout with subtle illustrations.
As early as 1605, the German newspaper Relation ran print ads similar to present-day classified ads that comprised only text. In 1609, British newspapers carried advertisements informing the audience about the opportunities for migration to America and the sale of items like Persian rugs, porcelain from China, and many more. In the US, the Boston News-Letter carried a real estate advertisement that described a property on Long Island. The ad was as follows:
"At Oyster-bay on Long Island in the Province of N.York, There is a very good Fulling-Mill, to be Let or Sold, as also a Plantation, having on it a large new Brick house, and another good house by it for a Kitchen & workhouse, with a Barn, Stable, etc. a young Orchard, and 20 Acres clear Land. The Mill is to be Let with or without the Plantation: Enquire of Mr William Bradford Printer in N.York, and no further.”
The print advertisement from 1910-60 transformed from visually crowded text-heavy and long copy to visual-dominated layout. Some examples of iconic advertisements are shown below:
The 20th century witnessed a paradigm shift in the history of print media advertising, marked by the proliferation of newspapers and periodicals and the birth of copywriting. By the 1940s, images and colours began to play a prominent role in print media advertising, as opposed to text-heavy advertisements in earlier centuries. Below is what a print advertisement looked like in 1957.
The 1960s–1980s can be regarded as the golden era for print advertising, reflected by the bold use of colours, space, and abstract ideas. Glimpses of the two ads in 1983 are as below:
Similarly, the cover designs of fashion magazines mirror the evolution of visual communication design through the centuries. For instance, the cover design of Cosmopolitan magazine in 1900 includes no text except the publication name and dull colours.
This was in sharp contrast to the cover of Vogue magazine in the 1950s, when photographs came to be used for the first time.
From the 1980s onwards, the era of striking colours began, which continued into the 21st century. Here is what the ‘Vogue’ magazine cover looked like in June 2019, marking its 15th anniversary in India.
Visual identity and communication design comprise an important element of brochures, flyers, and other print media. The following are important considerations to keep in mind while designing print media:
Below is an example of a good brochure design.
The above brochure reflects a good balance between visual elements and text. The relevant images make it easy to understand Samsung’s offerings. The brochure uses minimal text, keeping in mind the limited attention span of the viewer. Its modern design is well suited to a technology brand.
Visual communication has undergone a dramatic evolution in the past century, characterised by the invention of television, which made it possible to broadcast images and sound to the masses, followed by the advent of computers and graphic design software, which aid in the manipulation and editing of images like never before, allowing professionals to explore new ways of communicating with the audience. Furthermore, visual communication has assumed a pervasive role in our lives with the rise of social media platforms. Social media and digital marketing have unlocked the power of visual communication by making it more interactive and facilitating the experimentation of various visual formats like GIFs, animation, videos, creatives, etc.
Web design is another example of the application of visual communication to make the website appealing and user-friendly for the audience. The goal of a user-friendly website is to attract more viewers and encourage them to take desired actions, such as making a purchase on an e-commerce website. Various techniques to make a user-friendly website using visual communication design principles include:
The website above of a wall décor e-commerce brand serves as an example of good design. The minimalist design of the website aligns with the contemporary look for a seamless user experience. Its black, white, and grey colour palette makes it look aesthetic. Furthermore, the grid layout presents a systemic way of arranging elements. It also makes judicious use of negative space.
The use of visuals is also found in infographics to convey information. These are graphic depictions of data along with text to break down complex information into a comprehensible form. Examples of infographics include bar graphs, pie charts, histograms, Gantt charts, and many more. Though an infographic uses text, there are fewer chances of it not being read since it is crisp, concise, and clear.
Not only does an infographic look visually appealing, but it is also an effective way to present lengthy and complex information in an easy-to-understand manner. It also helps the user observe trends and patterns in data, which facilitates decision-making, especially in organisations. Moreover, it is easily shareable on websites and blogs via embedded links. It can also be shared on social media and used to drive traffic to the company website via social media widgets.
Below is an example of an effective infographic:
This infographic explains the paralanguage in detail. The best part of this infographic is that it has a coherent arrangement of content in the text. From explaining paralanguage to giving data in the form of pie charts, it arouses curiosity in the minds of the viewers to read more about the subject.
The above image is also a case study for good infographics. It uses a blue colour palette to decode a complex topic like a hurricane in easy-to-understand chunks. The colour scheme also makes the text easy to understand and print for sharing.
Social media professionals will know that text with images is likely to get ten times more engagement than text-only posts. Today, social media offers ample options to choose from: Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, and many more. The popularity of photo-based platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat over Twitter and Facebook is a testament to the power of visual communication in connecting and engaging with the target audience. Moreover, these applications are mobile-friendly, which makes it easy to create content on-the-go.
Today, most mobile devices are equipped with high-definition cameras and photo editing apps, making it easy to bring out the inner graphic designer in you. Brands are leaving no stone unturned to leverage the opportunity on social media to build awareness, showcase products, and build and grow their customer base through digital marketing. It has also given rise to social commerce, meaning shopping via these social media platforms directly without having to visit the company's website.
Innovative content formats, such as GIFs and memes, have also taken social media by storm. They are extensively used as tools for digital marketing. GIFs are short, looping animated icons that can drive engagement and traffic to your website. They are attractive, easy to understand, and elevate the significance of the message in an engaging way. Below is an example of a GIF:
Memes refer to an amusing artwork, i.e., an image, video, or text, that is copied and shared widely by internet users, often with slight variations. Memes can be easily understood and drive engagement as they are relatable and convey emotions and feelings interactively. Their design is simple, which also makes them easily editable and replicable. Below is an example of a meme.
Platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are recommended to post memes, while Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are preferred for GIFs.
Brands like ProWritingAid are extensively using memes and GIFs, especially on Instagram, to depict the everyday challenges of writing, like finishing a book. This relatable content builds relationships with its target audience by sharing its pain points while making them aware of its solutions.
Visual elements are the building blocks of visual communication design. Every artwork uses one or several visual elements, such as:
Line: Lines are strokes connecting two points. They form the simplest element of visual design. Lines can be of several types: thick or thin, bold or light, straight or curved, uniform width or tapering off, etc. The line type influences the psychological response of the human being. For instance, curved lines suggest comfort, while horizontal lines connote distance and calmness. Similarly, the line also indicates the expressive qualities of an artist. For example, freehand lines suggest personal energy, while mechanical lines connote rigid control.
Shape: Shapes are self-contained spaces, usually formed by lines. They may have two or three dimensions- length, breadth, and height. Shapes can be used to determine your feelings in a composition. For instance, squares and rectangles convey stability, while circles and ellipses denote continuous movement. The angle and curve of the shape may appear to change depending on one's viewpoint. Such a technique is called perspective drawing.
Colour: As a visual element, colour has the strongest effect on our emotions. It is used to create the mood and atmosphere of an artwork. Colour theory and colour psychology provide the foundation for using colours in an artwork. Each colour connotes a different emotion. For instance, red denotes passion and anger; yellow symbolises warmth, cheer, and creativity; purple stands for luxury, ambition, and royalty; and green connotes greenery, freshness, and quality.
Space: Space refers to the area that divides or surrounds the area of design. Space also implies negative space, i.e., the area between shapes. It is imperative to make judicious use of space in design. Ample space provides sufficient breathing room between various elements.
Pattern: A pattern is made by repeating the elements of an artwork to convey a sense of balance, harmony, contrast, rhythm, or movement. Broadly, there are two types of patterns: natural and man-made. Both can be regular or irregular, organic or geometric, positive or negative, repeating or random.
Texture: Texture refers to the look or feel of the artwork's surface. Visual texture adds depth and a new dimension to the design. Texture can create a rough and organic look and feel that lends to a human touch in design, even if it is digital.
Form: Form refers to the physical volume and the shape it occupies. It can be representational or abstract. Form is generally used in the context of sculpture, 3D designs, and architecture but may also refer to the illusion of 3D on a 2D surface.
In addition to these elements, certain visual principles guide the design process for effective visuals.
The visual hierarchy determines the order of messages in a design. It guides the audience to read through the flow of the information from the most important part of the design to the less important one. This hierarchy can be created by playing through the font size, shapes, patterns, repetition, or alignment in the design. For instance, users notice larger elements more easily; bright colours attract more attention than muted ones; repeating styles suggest that content is related; and so on.
Consider the below design:
The bigger fonts stand out from the rest and prompt the viewer to read them first. Both the size and weight of the font dictate the process of guiding the viewer. The fonts with a larger size and weight are read first.
Similarly, focal points in a design also guide the viewer of an artwork. These focal points are also areas of emphasis, interest, or difference within a composition that capture the viewer's attention. Consider the below design:
In the above design, the large and bright circle will attract attention first, followed by the other three red squares, which stand out from the grey squares due to their colour. In this design, the circle and three reddish squares are the focal points, as they can be easily distinguished from other elements.
Amidst globalisation, the emergence of new technologies and tools, and the migration of people across the world, a formidable challenge that visual designers face is to keep cultural diversity in mind while designing for global audiences. This problem is complicated further as the culture is also an amalgam of different groups who may have diverse expectations and needs for a particular visual design artwork. Hence, it is recommended for communication design professionals to be knowledgeable about their target audience—their culture, tastes, and preferences—and the context in which they will use or interact with design artwork.
Design professionals must also be abreast of cultural nuances and linguistics, such as the fact that a red colour may mean danger in certain cultures while connoting luck for others. A “V” sign may mean victory in certain countries and insult in others. Despite these challenges, several brands have developed inclusive and culturally sensitive campaigns. Dove's Real Beauty campaign highlights the diversity among individuals, such as colour, LBGTQ, and various shapes and sizes.
Mattel has also attempted to address the problem of inclusivity in its Barbie dolls by altering their colour, size, and look.
Next-generation technologies such as Metaverse and augmented reality (AR) have fundamentally altered the dimensions of visual communication. AR-based applications are gaining ground, such as holographic in-person communication, which has revolutionised how business communication with an in-person experience can be broadcast across locations. AR-based storytelling is also leveraged to evoke emotion, empathy, and user engagement.
The growing popularity of the metaverse implies that graphic design is not confined to two-dimensional objects on screens but comes to life through 3D experiences. This innovation allows designers to curate dynamic and interactive experiences and drive engagement notches higher than traditional mediums. Recent trends such as the adoption of 3-D design and motion graphics, stronger typography, the use of abstract shapes, and artificial intelligence-generating art have revolutionised visual communication.
Visual communication has drastically altered the way people communicate, interact, and share information. Its advantages are umpteen, from allowing quick sharing of information to overcoming language barriers and aiding swift decision-making. The burgeoning social media platforms, smart devices, and mobile devices have unlocked a gamut of opportunities in the way people consume and share visual content.
It also necessitates that visual communication professionals are adept at creating content tailored to various platforms and audiences. This requires understanding the key value propositions that each platform has to offer and creating content that meets the expectations of the target audience. While visual design jobs provide an opportunity to solve complex societal problems, they also endow each professional with the responsibility to create a factually correct, inclusive, transparent, and respectful design that does not perpetuate stereotypes or offend the sentiments of any community.
In the era of the coexistence of print and digital media, viewers must take advantage of the best of both worlds. While digital media allows quick sharing of information and is adaptable across platforms, the credibility of printed words is far higher than that of digital. Print media also allows us to read slowly, discern truth, and develop critical analysis and empathy. The interplay of technology, new trends, and culture presents an exciting time for visual communication.
- If you’ve enjoyed reading this piece, and want to learn more about how to make a career in visual communication , then this is a must-read for you.
- Discover the captivating bond between photography, environmental values and visual communication in this piece!
- Don’t forget to check out this comprehensive webinar on the career opportunities in communication design at IIAD to build an informed opinion.
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