“Can graphic design save your life?”, asks the commanding title of the Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition. Continuing this line of thought equally brings into question: “Can graphic design kill you, too?”
Creatives’ attempts to sell tobacco over the years are followed by efforts to encourage people to quit. In a campaign masterminded by Charles Saatchi, Silk Cut leapfrogged over legislation that prohibited the naming of brands, with visually seductive skeins of purple silk, slashed and sliced, inspired by conceptual artist Lucio Fontana. In the next-door cabinet, the gruesome pictures on cigarette packets today offer a completely different visual challenge. Silk Cut sales soared in the early 1990s. Now 300,000 people in the UK could stop smoking in response to these graphic health warnings. Images are powerful in driving action.
As communicators, we tend to rely on the written or spoken word. We care about narrative and messaging; about voice and messenger. It’s all too easy to approach the end of a thought leadership campaign and realise you’ve forgotten to call in the design troops. Perhaps you get there and realise there’s no budget left: an in-house job will have to do. Or that, because you’ve committed to delivering the content in a particular way, your designer is pressed into illogical layouts.
But we overlook design at the expense of those words we love so much.
Poor design can ruin good thought leadership. From basic errors, such as poor alignment and too-tight letterforms, to inappropriate or fluff images that have no relationship to the story and overcrowded infographics. After all that hard work to create the content, dropping the ball at this stage causes needless heartbreak.
Good visual design, on the other hand, not only informs, it emotionally connects with the reader. Use it in your thought leadership content to:
- Appeal to our human tendency to think visually. Visual thinking is deeply ingrained in the brain. A recent Harvard study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brain’s activity found that people “generate visual images regardless of whether their intent is to visualise something or to think verbally”. Help your reader along by choosing an image that acts as a focal point, enabling them to quickly grasp what the most important part of the message is.
- Increase participation and engagement. Instagram’s visual popularity has grown steadily since 2010 to become the third biggest social networking site (behind Facebook and Youtube). Its visual nature is a big part of why it’s considered to be the “best social media platform for customer engagement”. In a survey of micro-influencers, 60% thought Instagram was the best overall platform for engagement compared to 18% who chose Facebook. Facebook posts with images see 2.3x more engagement than those without. At the start of each of chapter, why not follow Instagram’s example and put a strong image first. And, when laying out multiple images, stick to a grid to keep things clear and balanced.
- Enhance intercultural understanding. Not all visual language is universal; nor can it be entirely culturally-neutral. But the images, icons, colours and other elements that comprise visual communication transcend cultural differences better than language does. Most thought leadership reports appear online, where they can be accessed by anyone, anywhere in the world. So, think carefully when choosing icons or graphics that they are acceptable beyond your immediate context, and can be understood by a wide audience.
- Inspire action. Images help us become involved. Instead of simply reading about a world event, for example, a photograph enables us to visualise what took place. We believe it to be true and it triggers a desire in us to make a positive change. But images and graphics on their own won’t actively encourage us to act. They need to be accompanied by specific calls to action. Consider where in your report you’re asking something of the reader and put your most powerful visual content alongside.
Images can shock or provoke or get us to think and act in far subtler ways. Don’t underestimate how much your thought leadership campaign needs them.