Back to the July-August 2023 issue

Visuals Are the Message in Effective Communications

By Kat Sikorski

Note: This is Part One in a two-part series.

Communications may be only one of the many functions of your job, but it’s a critical one. Many articles give the same broad tips for creating effective content: keep text clear and concise; avoid jargon; don’t overlook the importance of supporting visuals. Yet, these tips ignore a vital fact.

Visuals are the message. They are what drives your audience to engage with a piece of content. They are the communication that stays with your audience, long after they’ve forgotten the lines of text they skimmed or skipped.

Our brains crave images

As humans, we are built to process visual cues. Many studies over the past 50 years in diverse fields such as neuroscience, linguistics, education, and marketing show this.

  • Edwin Dale discovered in a 1960s study that information presented visually allowed the participants to retain 80% of information after three hours and 65% over three days. Compare that to lectures and reading, where participants retained only 25% of the information after three hours and a bare 10% after three days.
  • In the 1980s, a joint study by 3M and the University of Minnesota found presentations using visuals to be 43% more persuasive and likely to result in action than text-based presentations.
  • The same study found that the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and visuals improved learning by up to 400%.
  • A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study estimates that the brain can recognize even unfamiliar images in as little as 13 milliseconds. To put that in context, we blink at a speed of 100 to 400 milliseconds.

Imagery is a powerful tool. It can evoke emotions, convey complex ideas, and engage an audience on a deeper level. While text can provide greater context and details, our brains process visual information faster and retain visual information longer.

Annual City Day parade
Despite the headline and caption, the message in this image will leave you wondering if the event is actually better suited for adults and less so for children and pets.
Annual Oktoberfest Beer Dabbler ad
While the image above depicts an Oktoberfest event, it’s likely an inaccurate representation of what attendees can expect and could leave some confused as to whether children are allowed to attend.

When visuals and text clash

We could argue that visuals are an important supporting player in content design, but that overlooks a crucial truth. If the supporting visual contradicts its lead content, text, or audio, the message that the audience takes away will be the message the visual communicates.

In the examples on this page, it may seem obvious that these photos are incongruent with the text, but mistakes like this can happen when in a hurry or when resources are limited.

A brief guide to choosing visuals

Knowing that visuals can make or break your communications, how do we choose visuals that complement our content?

Know your audience. Tailor your visuals to resonate with their interests, demographics, cultural background, and overall preferences.

Consider readability. Recognizing familiar objects or scenes allows us to connect with the content and understand its context. Choose images that are high resolution or quality, with strong composition, balanced elements, and a clear focal point.

Stay authentic. Look for images that capture genuine emotions, real-life situations, and candid moments. Avoid overly staged or retouched images that can feel artificial.

Align visuals with your core message. Take the time to identify the key message or emotion you want to convey, and choose imagery that supports and reinforces it.

Incorporate visual hierarchy. Arrange elements in a way that guides the viewer’s attention and creates a logical path for the eye to follow. 

The takeaway 

The visuals you choose will always dominate the message your audience takes away from your content. We may spend hours carefully selecting words that convey the right meaning, tone, and nuance. We check for spelling and readability. But our brains don’t care. They want visuals.

Part Two in this series will go more in-depth into how our brains create meaning from images, and describe the magic formula for choosing visuals that enhance our intended messages rather than undermine them.

Kat Sikorski is strategic communications coordinator for the City of Minneapolis. Contact: