The Basics of Visual Communication: Marketing Strategies for a Visual World

By February 20, 2020 February 24th, 2020 Visual Communication, Visual Communication Strategies

Visual Communication Illustration with Eye and Icons

Visual communication lives all around us, from our social feeds to the billboards we pass on a highway. Whether it’s produced by your in-house team or a creative agency, great visual communication is more than a basic image — it captivates, informs, and leaves viewers wanting more. But producing high-quality visual marketing content is no easy task. It requires a profound understanding of how to produce content that can achieve specific goals and reach key audiences. 

While it may seem challenging to produce high-quality visuals, it’s well worth your while. The quality and content of the visual communication content you produce can have a substantial impact on your business. But don’t worry — this article is designed to start you on your journey. We’ll share pivotal data on how humans respond to visual communication, and explain how and when to use a variety of visual content. We’ll even outline how to manage a visual content project.  

So whether you’re planning a visual marketing campaign, rethinking your brand identity, or preparing for a conference, here’s everything you need to know to ensure your content produces real results.

What Is Visual Communication?

The definition of visual communication written by the team at Killer Visual Strategies actually appears in several textbooks. So, to kick off this post, we’d like to share the full definition here: 

Visual communication graphically represents information to efficiently and effectively create meaning.

This may sound simple enough. But the successful visualization of information isn’t easy, and requires a great deal of training and practice. As we’ll see later, visual communication isn’t the same as graphic design, because the latter doesn’t place the same emphasis on the accurate presentation of data and information. That’s why all visual communication designers are graphic designers, but not all graphic designers are visual communicators. 

As hard as it can be to create a successful visual communication design, interpreting visual information quickly is actually something that comes quite naturally to us. In fact, by one estimate, visuals communicate information 60,000x faster than text.

A Brief History of Visual Communication

Cave paintings with early visual communication

When you think about visual communication, what comes to mind? The latest viral meme? A text message composed entirely of emojis? These are just a few basic examples of the types of visual communication we encounter every day. 

But this type of content actually has been around for much longer. Take cave paintings, cuneiform writing, or hieroglyphics. Using an image as a symbol or form of communication is central to how humans communicate.

Visual marketing strategy statistic

More recently, scholars and activists have used visual communication to chronicle history, track the spread of disease, and measure socioeconomic disparities. The applications of visual communication and data visualization are wide-ranging across countless industries.  

Meanwhile, the spread of technology and communication has created an uptick in the ways we use visuals to communicate. And today, marketers rely on visual communication to drive their marketing strategies. Infographics, data visualizations, and other visual content have changed the way we read, share, and talk about information across industries and audiences.

The Basics of Visual Communication, Data Visualization, and Graphic Design

Today’s marketers and marketing agencies have a variety of visual tools at their disposal, from visual communication to data visualization to graphic design. But it can be easy to confuse these terms. What’s more, if you hire graphic designers to do work that only trained visual communicators are qualified to do, you might find yourself with a beautiful design that fails to deliver your message. 

That’s why the first step to knowing the right move for your brand is to understand the differences so you can figure out what you need. Let’s take a look at the differences.

data visualization icon

Data Visualization

Data visualization is just what it sounds like: a visual representation of hard numbers. These are individual charts or graphs that take data and present it in a visual format. Data viz can be included in a larger piece of visual communication, but one data visualization on its own may struggle to deliver a more complex message or story. This is why data viz elements are often combined to create an infographic, motion graphic, or other type of visual communication.

Graphic design agency icon

Graphic Design

Graphic design is a visually driven medium in which a variety of design elements are combined to create a piece of artwork, an advertisement, marketing collateral, or other types of content. A single piece of graphic design often aims to achieve a cohesive aesthetic by following industry best practices and creating a particular mood or tone.

Basics of visual communication icon

Visual Communication

Visual communication usually uses a combination of data visualization and graphic design to create content whose aim is to deliver information in an accurate, compelling way. It uses a variety of visual elements to develop a narrative and employs multiple formats to reach an audience. It’s the rectangle, whereas data viz and graphic design are simply square.

Why Is Visual Communication Important?

For decades, many companies have embraced the written word as a way of giving their readers a “hook,” especially in the wake of Bill Gates’s 1996 monumental essay “Content Is King.” In today’s fast-paced, digital-centric era, however, it’s time to rely on visual content — specifically, visual communication.

The creators of those ancient cave drawings may not have had a marketing strategy in mind … but there’s a reason that visual communication has stuck around for millennia and can be found in practically every culture. We are hard-wired to process visual information both accurately and quickly.

How Brains Process Visual Content Statistic

That’s probably why visual communication is shown to significantly improve our understanding when information is being shared. According to E-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Dr. Ruth Colvin Clark and Dr. Richard E. Mayer, when compared with text alone, text that is combined with images improves comprehension by as much as 89%. 

To that end, it makes sense that using visual communication can have a big impact on brand marketing strategies: it empowers organizations to communicate more clearly with their target audiences in a way that feels natural to those audiences. 

Effective visual communication is so important because it can express complex information with multiple layers of meaning. A pie chart isn’t just a pie chart. An icon is a symbol and more. Text gets distilled into the most concentrated version of itself. How?

  • It communicates with a visual-first approach. This means that the visuals must deliver as much meaning as the copy — or more.
  • It delivers a defined tone to an audience. From stroke weight to data visualization style, visuals combine aesthetic choices, movement, and information to tell a unified story.
  • It reinforces a brand’s visual strategy. With thoughtful color, illustration, and typographic choices, visuals drive your company’s message and goals forward.

When these three features are applied appropriately, visual communication can be transformative. This may be the reason so many brands have worked with an agency or in-house team to make visual communication a key part of their marketing strategies.

When it comes to finding the right visual content for your next campaign, generic images may be easy to come by — but for effective visual communication, they usually aren’t the answer. Stock images do offer some benefits, including a wealth of options. However, as close as they may come to being the right fit, stock photos or icons won’t capitalize on the third point noted above. They won’t do the best work in driving your brand’s unique message.

The right images really can make a difference. In fact, 40.2% of marketers say that original, custom visual content such as illustrations and infographics perform best, compared to just 12.5% saying stock photography is best, according to Venngage. When planning your visual communication, always consider custom visual content that’s tailored to your message, your tone, and your brand.

I’m Sold … So How Do I Start? When to Use Visual Communication

Illustration of a brand's visual communication strategy

No matter what industry you’re in, knowing the basics of visual communication can facilitate and elevate your message. Remember, your audiences are hard-wired to understand visuals more quickly and effectively than text. Visual communication can help when you:

  • Have a lot of data
  • Want to tell a complex story
  • Need to capture someone’s attention

No matter what you’re saying, it’s important to consider how your audience will best understand your message. If you recently conducted a survey but your readers aren’t statisticians, how can visual communication help make sense of your data? If the emotional weight of your subject matter has the potential to disengage your audience, how can visual communication strike the right tone? Asking questions like these at every turn will help determine when visual content is the right answer.

Some Applications of Visual Communication

Visual communication can be applied across diverse media, industries, and topics. Some formats include (but aren’t limited to):

Infographics icon showing basic visual communication

Infographics

Infographics tell a story using facts, data, and visuals. They work in both digital and print formats and are a great tool for presenting a clear data- or fact-based message.

Visual Annual and Financial Reports Icon

Annual & Financial Reports

Annual reports don’t have to be hefty tomes. By following the basics of visual communication and incorporating data viz and iconography, these reports can take on new life and capture interest and readership.

Motion Graphics Design Agency Icon

Motion Graphics

Motion graphics — most often at 90 seconds or less — deliver dynamic stories. These are a great outlet for explaining information, promoting products, or describing a situation. They rely on a multisensory approach to capture an emotional response in the viewer.

Interactive visual communication content icon

Interactive Content

Interactive content creates a hands-on approach to learning. Whether it’s a full-size microsite or a compact widget, an interactive experience can deliver complex or substantial amounts of information in personalized, easily digestible formats.

Icon for conference collateral like brochures and poster designs

Conference Collateral

Expert visual communication at conferences means that your brand will have a lasting impact. Custom collateral such as booth designs and brochures can deliver your unique message, ensuring that you connect with a broader audience … and that they remember you.

Print materials icon as basic visual communication

Print Materials

Posters. Brochures. Direct mail. No matter the size of the page, visual communication can get your message across. Even a postcard can be a frame-worthy use of space and information.

Icon for brand identity as part of visual communication strategy

Brand Identity

Maintaining the integrity of your brand is a must. Establishing a clear visual brand identity will ensure that every piece of visual content you produce upholds your company’s values and goals while reaching a defined audience.

Augmented and Virtual Reality Design Icon

Augmented & Virtual Reality

AR and VR provide opportunities to dig deeper than what’s on the surface. Whether that’s by providing additional data or creating a new universe to showcase your brand, these cutting-edge platforms create an embodied visual experience that communicates the heart of any message.

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Visual Communication Campaigns

Any individual piece of collateral is a drop in the marketing bucket. With a campaign approach, you can use a variety of visual communication across channels to tell a larger story, whether you’re building brand recognition, sharing information, or launching a product.

The Creative Process: Making a Piece of Great Visual Content

Understanding the importance and implications of visual content is one thing … but creating it is another. Here are three tenets to keep in mind as you work to develop visuals that excel.

Communication as the first step in a creative project

Communication

Creating pieces that communicate visually requires clear communication throughout the entire process: between content writers and designers, between your marketing team and your design team, and more. If you’re working with a visual communication agency, make sure that they ask at least some basic questions about your goals and target audience. These considerations should be communicated to the entire creative team and should drive the entire production process.

Revision stage in creative project

Revision

Even when you talk about your goals, it’s pretty rare that things will turn out perfectly on the first go. Working with a creative team is a collaborative process, so be clear about the changes you’d like to see and what your reasoning is for those changes. An experienced team of visual communicators will be able to make smart recommendations for revisions that address your concerns while keeping your goals in clear view.

Partnership in visual communication strategy project

Partnership

In creating custom content — be it an icon or a visual language — it’s important that you put your best foot forward. Working with a visual communication agency who can guide you toward the end result that’s best for your unique situation and goals will help your visual communication stand out in all the right ways.

Taking Your Visual Communication Strategy to the Next Level

Visual communication is a rich part of our history and evolution. It comes to us naturally, so we find it more compelling and easier to understand than text. All of this makes it a powerful tool that marketers can’t afford to ignore.

Just remember one thing if you’re looking to incorporate more visual communication content into your next marketing campaign: focus on quality. In a world where high-quality visuals are everywhere, stock imagery won’t be enough to keep your audiences’ attention. So partner with a visual communication agency to determine the right visual strategy for your brand.

Abi Pollokoff

Author Abi Pollokoff

Abi Pollokoff is the Director of Content for Killer Infographics. Originally from the Chicago area, she moved to Seattle in 2014 from New Orleans. With a BA in English, French, and Italian and an MFA in Poetry, she is dedicated to exploring the nuances and possibilities of language. Before joining Killer, Abi spent time as a writing instructor as well as the associate editor at a book-publishing company. These experiences bolster Abi’s work with Killer and enable her to write for diverse audiences, and she strives to apply this perspective to target the unique goals of every Killer project. Abi enjoys developing strong working relationships with clients and creating a human connection through the writing process.

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