A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

June 19th, 2013

Since its invention, we have been enamored with the photograph. Why do we respond so strongly to images? And how has this penchant for images been changing the social media landscape.

Photography allows us to capture life’s most important events. We can immortalize famous moments in history, beloved relatives, young children before they grow up, our holidays, vacations, and much more. Images connect with us – instantly – on an emotional level that the written word simply cannot compete with.

The rapidly burgeoning smartphone market means that practically everyone has a camera in their pocket. In addition to holidays and birthdays, we can now visually document nearly every facet of our lives. People post pictures on Facebook of their meal at a fancy restaurant. Parents instantly upload photos of their newborn from the hospital. Those who are oppressed in corrupt countries can post pictures of war crimes and human rights abuses to hold their leaders accountable. As the influence of the internet increases, visual media has exploded as a huge trend. Anyone can be an amateur photographer.

Why do we respond so strongly to images? For one thing, our eyes are the most developed of the sensory organs. We are hardwired to take in tons of visual information every second, process it, and make sense of it. It’s simply faster for us to look at a picture than it is for us to read a paragraph. Information designer Tom Wujec described in a TED Talk how our brains create meaning through images. Wujec says that our brain doesn’t actually see the world exactly as it is, but instead creates mental models based on the information our eyes take in and deliver to the brain. The primary visual cortex, which can only see basic geometric shapes, takes this information and sends it to centers around the brain, including the limbic system. Very old evolutionarily, the limbic system is deep inside the brain and supports our emotional functioning. It also pays attention to color. This is why we have such an emotional reaction to photographs, especially color ones.

European brain researchers found out that our visual sense dominates our experiences. The researchers put red dye in white wine, and asked professional wine tasters to describe the win. Every one of them described the wine using vocabulary prescribed for red wines, demonstrating that we believe what we see.

In an article called “The Rise of Visual Social Media”, Ekaterina Walter calls online visual marketing “the breakout trend for 2012.” Websites like Instagram, Pinterest, Flikr, and PhotoBucket are doing very well. People are more likely to click on a link if it has an eye-catching picture, even if it’s something simple. We used to think it was all about content, which is still important, but it seems that visually-appealing images are the key to getting people’s attention.

A 2012 study by ROI Research found that people enjoy looking at pictures their friends post on social networks more than they like viewing status updates, links, etc. Women in particular are drawn to images, perhaps explaining why so many women are on Pinterest.

How can you take advantage of our fondness for photographs? Include eye-catching photographs in your presentations, flyers, and brochures. Frame a beautiful or sentimental photograph and give it as a gift to a friend or loved one. Be aware how your emotions may be manipulated when you see an advertisement with appealing images. Don’t underestimate the power of pleasing images and colors when you are trying to persuade someone.

Visual media is continuing to grow alongside advances in the internet and technology. Better and cheaper cameras allow practically anyone to document their lives, and smartphones are at the front of the movement. Is there such a thing as image overload? Will we eventually tire of the onslaught of images? Not so far.

John Bradley Jackson

Top Dog

The BirdDog Group

© Copyright 2013

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