The Power of Visuals Over Words

If you read a statistic that 40% of the U.S. population are at risk of disease and premature death because of air pollution, most likely you would think, “Wow, that is a high number, I can’t imagine what someone must be going through who experiences that!” But if this same statistic is paired with a photo of someone on a respirator, immediately it feels so much more personal. With an image, we are better able to grasp the individual human suffering behind an overwhelmingly large statistic like this.

Humans are wired to connect more with images than words, because 90% of the information processed by the brain is visual. Words are abstract, visuals are concrete. This means that humans process images far quicker than words; we remember visuals better; and an image is a far more accessible way for us to communicate.

These facts underlie so much of how we approach our communication work here at SGA and can be seen below in two examples from our work:

Visuals increase the speed of understanding

Humans process visuals far quicker than we do words. It only takes us 150ms for a symbol to be processed and 100ms to attach a meaning to it. This is a reason why so many road signs are image based—they quickly capture what a few words or sentences would take far longer to communicate.

Our Contra Costa Clean Water Program Example: Given this, our client, the Contra Costa Clean Water Program, needed an image based public education campaign to encourage residents to use integrated pest management. Integrated pest management is a complicated topic to communicate as, even though its long term environmental benefits are very evident, it can take longer in the short term to get rid of pests compared to traditional pesticides.

Our approach: Most of us (really!) don’t like pests in our homes and backyards. In our research, we found that people prioritized getting rid of the pests as quickly as possible and that they saw the time and effort required by integrated pest management as a major barrier. The only way to break though this perceived barrier was with an even stronger motivator—our love and concern for the health and wellbeing of our pets and children. This strategy informed our image choices for the ‘Pesticide Linger’ ad campaign.

The right image meant that we did not need to describe all of the dangers of using pesticides on a family’s beloved baby and dog for the audience to be compelled. The image told the story—and our connection to images made this message far stronger than what words could describe (image referenced is at the beginning of this piece).

Visuals that resonate with your own beliefs are often far more memorable and help increase accessibility.

Images are compelling and often far more easy for us to recall. In fact, people remember 80% of what they see and do, whereas only 20% of what they read. People also all learn and process information differently. To communicate as broadly as possible, images help increase the accessibility of your content to your audience.

Our County of Santa Clara Example: The County of Santa Clara was struggling with the problem of abandoned used motor oil becoming an environmental health hazard, especially given how much easier it is to dump used oil instead of dispose of it properly.

Our approach: We knew that in order for a campaign and its imagery to resonate, it needed to be representative. So, we first had to understand the practices, beliefs and attitudes concerning
used motor oil within the Santa Clara community. To do this, we interviewed community members outside of auto supply stores. Our key finding was how family-centric this community was. Explaining the potential impact of used motor oil on this community’s environment and the health of its children ultimately informed the campaign tagline: “Dumped Used Oil and We All Get Soaked.”

The aim behind the choice of image for this campaign was to connect the ease of dumping used oil with the visceral horror of an image of a child stepping into a pool of oil. By understanding the target audience, customizing the campaign to suit them and using a memorable image, San Jose of Santa Clara County saw a 136% increase in used oil recycling and a 70% decrease in illegal dumping at the end of the campaign.

Reinforcing our communication with the right visuals helps counter the “information overload” in our everyday lives. Visuals are powerful, compelling, accessible, and align with how people want to receive messaging nowadays.

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