What’s a picture worth?

Emojis. Instagram. Snapchat. Communicating with images has never been easier or more popular.

Design | 4 mins read | Michael Gough

What’s a picture worth?
What’s a picture worth?

In branding, images can shape those crucial first impressions of a product or service. They can capture our interest and draw us in. Or they may fail to make an emotional connection, and pass us by. It’s really important to find the right kind of imagery.

I was reminded of the power of imagery recently on an agency outing to a Jean–Michel Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican. Basquiat’s work was a chaotic, colourful riposte to both high art and superficial popular culture. I was struck at how his pioneering imagery evokes the culture of downtown New York City in the 1980s without lots of direct references to the city. His style became synonymous with that time and place, and it’s a great example of how imagery can carry associations that we instantly recall. 


Basquiat paintings

Two kinds of images

Basquiat’s art is impossible to pigeon–hole, but we could describe it as evocative. There are many other categories of imagery, but let’s pick one other for the sake of contrast: descriptive, or representational.

Descriptive imagery shows the viewer what you’re talking about. It’s more obvious, more literal. It sets the scene. People looking at a representational image should know exactly what they’re seeing and why.

Evocative imagery is more about the sentiment, and works by association. Rather than show things as they are, it often uses symbols to carry the meaning. It’s more interested in what you feel than what you see. Evocative imagery is harder to get right, but it can be very powerful.

Let’s look at how you might these types of imagery.

Show don’t tell

Descriptive imagery is easier to do, and often it’s the obvious approach – this is an advert for a blender, so there is a picture of a blender.

Journalistic writing will usually benefit from images that give readers context. If you’re communicating something specific and tangible, it’s the way to go – holiday brochures, catalogues with product shots. We expect cookbooks to show us what the dish will look like.

Not that descriptive images are foolproof. A poorly composed or badly–lit photo can put you off a product completely – as you will know if you’ve ever ruled out a purchase on Ebay or AirBnB because of the sloppy pictures. Beware of generic imagery too. The internet abounds with hackneyed stock photos. People have seen them before, and it undermines your integrity and expertise.

Invest in good images. There are quality stock sites such as Offset or Unsplash, but get a professional to help you choose. Commission new artwork or photography when you can, so that you can guarantee something bespoke and original.

Evoke a feeling

Sometimes you need to convey a feeling rather than show people something. If you’re choosing imagery for a charity, you may want people to feel a particular emotion. Or perhaps you’re selling something that is by nature impossible to communicate visually. Evocative imagery may be the way to go.

Take perfume ads. You can’t show people a smell, and scratch–and–sniff is a bit 1980s. You’re going to have to represent that scent some other way – with associations of glamour or romance, for example.

Evocative imagery can make you think, and it can put a new perspective on something familiar. If you’re selling a car, people want to know what it looks like. If you’re a global fizzy drinks brand, everybody knows what your product looks like already. You’re going to have to come in the side door and work with associations. At Sparks, we think this is a real opportunity for creativity, and we’ve made imaginative evocative artwork a hallmark of our studio’s approach.

As it’s more open to interpretation, evocative imagery is riskier. Context is vital – red flowers might symbolise romance around Valentine’s Day, but the tragic waste of human life if used around Remembrance Day. You want to think about what other associations your image might have in case it could be mis–interpreted, especially when working cross–culturally. It helps to be specific about the sentiment you want to evoke. Avoid clichés and overused ideas. Give your creatives a broad brief, and see if they surprise you.

Let me illustrate

We’ve talked about photos, but imagery includes illustration too. Illustrations can grapple with abstract concepts in a way that photographs often can’t, and there’s no limit on your creativity. They can add warmth and personality. Illustration will always be individual, and the chances are it will be more memorable.

Illustration can be particularly powerful where it’s unexpected. We’re used to the digital environment being slick and smooth, and illustration can bring character and charm. Brands tend to shy away from illustration when they want to be taken seriously. But the right illustration, in the right style, can portray playfulness without compromising gravitas.

Take the NSPCC. The charity can’t use real case studies for child protection reasons, and stock photography lacks authenticity. Embracing an illustrated approach allows them to deal with sensitive subjects. TSB use illustration in their marketing, bringing life and colour to the potentially dry and impersonal world of banking. We used a similar approach with our investment client Ruffer. We added an illustrated character on the home page of their website, animated to give visitors a personal greeting. It’s a friendly way of challenging expectations – here is an investment company that is approachable, and that understands customer service.

NSPCC, TSB, Ruffer illustrations

The big picture

Imagery should never be an after–thought. It’s a powerful resource with huge potential to reinforce or weaken your message. Whether photography or illustration, descriptive or evocative, the right style will complement your message, set the tone, and draw attention to key messages. If there’s anything in this post that’s got you thinking about your visuals, get in touch and let’s talk about it.

Finally, keep exploring. We’re big believers in seeking out fresh inspiration, and looking up new and challenging ideas. You’re too late for Basquiat, unfortunately. But we can recommend that you go and see the Olafur Eliasson exhibition at the Tate Modern instead.


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