Why Use Visuals?
Think about the last time you asked for directions to a location. In addition to the directions of “go north” or “turn right on Main Street,” if your directions included a map, then you know how helpful it is when you have a visual representation of information. A simple visual can take the place of many words. For example, the word “STOP” is a fairly easy word, but a red light or octagonal sign removes the need for any words at all. The weather report shows you a rain cloud, and you grab your umbrella without a second thought. Often, your message can be more clearly understood by incorporating visuals, as visuals attract attention and engage your audience. Visuals make your communication noticeable.
Many studies have been done on the impact of visuals, with results such as those below:
- Only 70 percent of people reading labels on medicine containers understand the instructions when they are written in text form, but that understanding increases to 95 percent when the text is accompanied by images. 
- People follow written directions 323 percent better when images accompany instructions. 
- People are 80 percent more likely to engage with content when it features color visuals.
- Facebook audiences are 651 percent more likely to engage with a post if it includes an image, compared with posts that don’t.
From this, we know that visuals can make your communication easier to access and understand. But do they help you make a point, create a convincing message, or sell an idea? Yes:
- When listening to an oral presentation, 50 percent of an audience may be persuaded by the language alone, but that number increases to 67 percent when the presentation features visuals. 
The following video emphasizes the importance of visual communication in business.
Characteristics of Effective Visuals
Visuals need to adhere to all of the characteristics of effective communication, and particularly the following:
- clarity: visuals should be clear, clean, and simple
- consistency: visuals should generally maintain a uniform look and feel within one presentation or document; visuals representing a company should maintain consistency with that company’s brand
- relevancy: visuals should make sense as a part of the whole communication and clearly illustrate their concepts
There’s also an additional characteristic of effective visuals:
- persuasiveness: visuals should inspire increased understanding and, in some cases, an emotional bond with the content they enhance
In general, clear visuals have:
- sharp images – There should be a sharp, clearly delineated focal point. Blurred images that are not intentional, and do not have a clear focal point, may be difficult to absorb.
- appropriate colors – If you have a pie chart or a graph, it helps to use obviously contrasting colors (e.g., red, yellow, blue) for ease of reading (as opposed, for example, to making each piece is a different shade of green). Images that illustrate positive information may use bolder colors than images that illustrate more solemn information. Visuals that represent a company should adhere to that company’s color scheme.
- easy-to-read fonts – Fancy lettering slows your reader down. Choose a font that’s easy to read, such as one of the many discussed by author John Wood in his blog for the American Writers & Artists, Inc. website. In general, paper documents may use standard serif fonts (e.g., Times New Roman), while online documents use sans serif fonts (e.g., Calibri, Ariel).
- pertinent information – Include only information you need to highlight in the visual. For example, if the point of your communication is to show that sales have gone up 22 percent over last year, your graph should feature that information, and nothing about expenses, employee turnover, or gross margin, even if you intend to make points about those concepts later on. Confine one visual to one main concept.
Maintain the same font, base colors, heading colors, and types of images throughout a presentation or written document. For example, this page on effective visual images looks lot like the other pages in this text. Uniformity helps an audience understand what to expect and better prepares them to engage with your message, especially if your message is delivered in a medium that uses a lot of print. (Note that for powerpoint presentations, maintain consistency in color and font, but not necessarily in slide layout, as current powerpoint trends have moved away from lock-step template consistency.)
Consider the following characteristics that help create visual consistency in a communication:
- Use the same type of visual for multiple representations of the same information. For example, if you start out with a bar chart showing annual sales, don’t turn the same information into a line graph in the next section and a stacked bar chart in the section after that, as different representations of the same information tend to confuse an audience. Keep in mind that if you found the best visual scheme to explain the data in the first place, there’s no reason to change it for the sake of variety.
- Maintain a consistent color scheme and font type. If you show sales on your graphs in red, always show them in red. If you’ve chosen one easy-to-read font for all your slides, there’s no need to deviate.
- Use images that are visually similar. For example, if you’re using photos that depict real people, inserting a pencil drawing of a person may be jarring. If you’re using a series of head shots, the heads should all be about the same size. If four of the pictures show a person’s head and shoulders, the fifth one should not show a person standing up.
Visuals should relate to and enhance your main concepts. For example, if your main point relates to annual sales, your charts and graphs should not deal with employee turnover rates. If your presentation is about your company’s efforts to reduce waste, that presentation would not likely feature a photograph of flowers. That’s relevancy at a very basic level.
Keeping communication “on brand” takes relevancy to a whole new level. Companies rely on visual media as much as the written word to deliver their brand message and, as a communicator, you need to keep your choice of visual elements relevant to your company’s brand. For example, if you ever visit Target’s website, you may notice there’s a whole lot of red. Target has a series of colors and images that coincide with the way they identify themselves as a company and the promises they make to their customers. You see a lot of crisp clean backgrounds with vivid pictures showing style and value—and a lot of red fonts and bulls eyes. As another example, Disney photos always depict happy families interacting with characters and enjoying the entertainment.
Your visuals should help you tell your story. Even if your data is persuasive, language is aided by visual representation. Images, charts, videos, or any visual will enhance both audience understanding and retention of information. For maximum persuasiveness, make sure that your visuals are easy to understand and from reliable sources. If you’re communicating in aid of a cause, you may want to choose an image that invokes some emotion, without being too blatant. This doesn’t mean that you should sacrifice objectivity when you persuade through visuals. Your communication strategy on the whole is an engagement tool, and your choice of visuals should strengthen that engagement.
The following video offers a good review of concepts related to effective visuals.
The following video discusses basics strategies related to using images in your communications.
Making Visuals Accessible
Consider all of your audience members’ needs when creating visuals, from paper handouts to presentation slides to writing on a flip chart. The American Psychological Association’s page on Accessibility Guidelines for Speakers contains a useful overview of strategies to consider. Other useful overviews are DO-IT’s page on How can you make your presentation accessible? and Ravenhall’s article on Inclusive Design for Accessible Presentations, among many others.
Here are a few quick tips for accessibility:
- use larger type so that text can be easily viewed and read
- do not use color only as a means of conveying information (so that printed versions in black and white make sense)
- provide a text alternative for non-text material, including images and videos, as automatic captioning and screen readers do not always work well, especially for charts and graphs
The point here is that, especially if you have a large viewing or reading audience and don’t know members’ needs, you should be aware of accessibility strategies, which actually can help all members of your audience.
Here’s an example of how a screen reader reads automatically reads a graph – you can see how inaccessible it makes the visual communication.
Using Visuals Ethically
 Dowse, R. & Ehlers, M. (2005). Medicine labels incorporating pictograms: Do they influence understanding and adherence?, Patient Education and Counseling, Vol 58, Issue 1.
 University of New Hampshire. How Infographics Can Enhance Your Communications Strategy.
 Green, R. (1989). The Persuasive Properties of Color, Marketing Communications.
 Social Intelligence Report, Adobe Digital Index Q4 2013
 Levie, W. J. & Lentz, R. (1982). Effects of text illustrations: A review of research, Educational Communication and Technology.