There’s a reason why the Northern Lights, the roof of the Sistine Chapel and Ryan Gosling’s face make so many humans react they way they do. Whether they take our breath away or make us quiver at the knees, these images exert a force on us, and they do it in consistent and predictable ways. That’s the theory behind neurologists Ramachandran and Hirstein’s research on the human experience of aesthetic stimuli, which found that beautiful things evoke predictable, primal responses in us.

“So what?” you might ask. “I’m not a Ryan Gosling look-alike tour guide.” The point is: just as there’s a science to marketing (as we hope to prove in this blog series), there’s a science to visual imagery and our engagement with it.


business is visual

When we put on our business hats we’ll see that we can put this knowledge to use. Think about how you last engaged with one of your favourite brands, or, if you’re a business owner, how you present yourself to the world, and you’ll probably start thinking visually. Websites, email marketing campaigns, adverts – even your professional profile picture – are all visual cues that say something about your business. Taking some nuggets of wisdom from those theories of aesthetic experience, we can learn something about how a business can present itself in images.

One company that’s more than a little image-conscious is Apple. Some of you will be eagerly anticipating iOS7 which will launch in the coming weeks with a fresh interface – a major shift in the company’s approach to design. It’s all about 2D versus 3D and something called skeuomorphia. Go on, Google it. Then we can all look like people who know what they’re talking about (geddit?).


be beholden to the beholder

Taking a look at my iPhone, most of the icons for apps are in some way connected to the  function that app performs (for example, yellow lined notepaper on the Notepad icon).

The thinking here is akin to Ramachandran and Hirstein’s work on metaphor: creating economical ways of communicating meaning by connecting images or concepts. So, for example, the process that turns your thumb taps into digital text on your phone screen is at heart just like what you do when you write a note with a pen. Even the app’s cursive font mimics “reality”.

We can also think about this in terms of what our neuroscientist friends call “supernormal stimuli”. Basically, humans have “limited attentional resources” and like short-cuts to meaning. Caricatures and exaggerated representations give us the gist; the rest falls into place.

The lesson: go easy on your customer (or viewer). They’re busy (or lazy) and need a painless shot of visual information. Be efficient and informative, whether it’s in your logo, your website design or your app icon.


speak their visual language

Apple is moving away from skeuomorphia because, at least in part, we’re not stupid and we don’t need this kind of spoon-feeding. We know that shadow doesn’t really mean 3D and, in fact, the whole faux-realistic style’s looking a bit dated. Most pertinent, however, is the fact that many young consumers who own phones will not have the same real-world experience of old-fashioned notepads and envelopes and alarm clocks with bells, so these associations won’t exist for them. Way to make us feel past it, Apple.

The lesson: while humans enjoy visual metaphor, we’re also sophisticated enough to know when it’s necessary and when it’s not. And when it is used, it needs to cater to the experience of the viewer. Do some market research, get to know your customers and test out a mixture of images and techniques on them. Run A/B tests on websites and email marketing campaigns and monitor which images connect best with them.


are you ready for your close-up?

If you’re marketing your business and trying to position the boss as an expert in the market, interviews and opinion articles in the press will go a long way. The human face is arguably the most affecting and engaging image (for humans, anyway), so it pays to get your corporate mugshot right. I don’t mean you have to stare into the middle distance with a beautiful sadness in your eyes – just that there are certain conventions of composition that you can exploit.

Sticking with Apple, no example is more striking than the image that dominated the company’s website following Steve Jobs’ death.


Given the context, it’s not the average profile picture, but it highlights some basics. It’s simple, striking and high in contrast. Part of the reason humans are attracted to images of high contrast (run some eye-tracking tests on your website to see for yourself), is because they’re easier for our eyes and brains to process than images with graduated shades.


make sure it all adds up

The Jobs image also fits with the rest of the Apple look, which is important for winning the trust of your customers – more on that in an upcoming blog post. Take, for example, the teaser for the new Mac Pro.

It takes a while for us to figure out what’s going on as the sleek black cylinder emerges from the black background. By a process called “perceptual grouping” we make out the shape and identify the object. It’s a bit of a eureka moment and gives us a nice warm feeling inside. Humans like figuring out little puzzles like this, and it’s thought that the kick we get out of it is a neurological hangover from the days when we had to rely on our senses and wits to avoid prehistoric dangers. Except now instead of sabre-tooth tigers in the jungle, it’s the future of desktop computing we’re squinting at.

The lesson: viewers like to be challenged now and again, and enjoy visual tricks that make them use their wits. And whatever the purpose of the image, whether it’s to give your brand a face or to advertise a product, make sure it fits within an overarching style. This reassures your customers that your brand knows what it’s about and is a coherent unit. Do you adverts contradict your website – in style or content? Fundamentals like website layout and brand colouring have to be coherent from the get-go, or your customers will see through you.

the bigger picture

So there’s a lot more to images than meets the eye. They affect viewers and, if you know a bit about how and why this happens, then you can manipulate your company images – and, ultimately, your audience. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what are yours saying about your business?