How is it that a smiling emoji can communicate the human face with just a few dots and an upturned line? Why can a 30-second napkin sketch generate so much enthusiasm? Why are commercials so influential? What makes the filters you apply via mobile photo-sharing apps so appealing? They all engage the viewer's imagination, and this engagement creates a participatory interaction and dialogue between visual and viewer.
Visuals have the unique capacity to allow information to be perceived rather than dictated. We look at the image and have the opportunity to piece together its meaning. There is a subtle but significant difference between being told 2+2=4, compared to being asked what 2+2 equals. The asking fosters a conversation and allows us to come to our own conclusion. So what’s going on that allows this to occur?
First, most forms of image-making are an interpretation of reality. The artist sets out to depict something and, regardless of their medium, tools, purposeful choices, or skill level, there is a reduction of detail or fidelity to the facts of reality. The faces seen in an emoji, napkin sketch, or painting are all faces, but they are a step or many steps removed from a true face. This might sound like a loss, but in fact it’s an incredible communication tool that artists have harnessed in many influential ways. At a recent lecture, the artist Armand Serrano stated, “Providing less allows the viewer to participate more.” This is a point that can be better understood by breaking down some aspects of what happens when viewing an image.
Our imaginations are immensely powerful and naturally inclined towards filling in gaps of information. We can envision the street as it turns around the corner, the room behind a closed door, and the face behind a costume. The artist who knows this can begin to craft imagery for the purpose of leveraging the viewer's imagination. They can purposefully reduce details with the goal of making the viewer’s experience more meaningful.
When viewing the world, it’s natural to overlay our selves and personal experiences. Whether a story, painting, or commercial, we quickly become the main character, or we relate to it based on our life experiences. When it comes to visuals, our personal experiences allow us to each have a slightly different interpretation – but most importantly, it’s a personal experience.
Most art in some way is a simplification or stylization of details. In the book Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, Scott describes simplification as a form of amplification. An emoji can represent millions of faces, but a photo of an individual represents very few. The power and long life of many cherished cartoon characters come from the fact that their simplification allows their stories to resonate to a large audience.
With these concepts in mind, it’s possible to craft an image to deliberately foster different types of conversations. If you want to keep a dialogue in the mode of creative ideation, less refined sketches are appropriate. If you're ready to present an established concept that answers specific questions, more detailed and polished imagery apply. If you desire to speak to a larger audience, cartoons or greater simplification can speak towards broader demographics.
Although you may not always have access to the staff to create custom imagery, you can be aware of the capacity for visuals to influence the viewer and direction of conversation. Ask yourself questions like:
- Who is my viewer?How large is my audience?
- What type of conversations do I want to foster?How does the content in the visuals speak to the viewer?
- How do the visuals reinforce the copy or the spoken presentation?
And it's important to remember that, although visuals may not convey the greater facts of a conversation, they can communicate an emotional, personal experience that is unique to each viewer.
Mark Morse is a Deloitte Digital illustrator who focuses on storyboards and sequential "day in the life” journeys for pitches and presentations, providing a broad range of experiences in visually conveying project objectives and goals.