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Visually speaking

Ben Hornbrook, 1 October 2013

During the recent Federal Election Wendy Bacon from the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism wrote about how images are now “weapons in a communication war”. Referring to the imagery used in the asylum seeker debate, Bacon outlined the primacy of imagery over text in eliciting an emotional response, and highlighted the growing importance of visual communication in influencing opinion.

While this op-ed was very much focussed on news photography, it got me thinking about how the way we consume information is changing, and how images are becoming more prominent as we battle information overload.

Because we process information more quickly when it is presented visually, visual communication will beat text almost every time when it comes to facilitating engagement, or creating a quick impression. The consensusalso seems to be that the biggest shift in social media in 2013 is the growth of video and photo sharing (through platforms such as Instagram and Vine).

Infographics and data visualisations are one form of visual communication that can be incredibly powerful. Financial Times data journalist John Burn-Murdoch argues that some of this power could stem from an “automatic credibility” we give visually presented information. He suggests that we often accept graphs and diagrams as fact because while text is frequently presented for critique “data visualisations are overwhelmingly used to display final results”. I find this idea very interesting.

Al Gore’s use of graphs and visuals in An Inconvenient Truth is a great example of the power of visual communication. Some of my favourite more recent examples include the amazing visual representation of all drone strikes in Pakistan developed by The Guardian, and this great list of 40 maps to change your understanding of the world.

What all of these examples have in common is that they lend new perspectives to information, or improve understanding through simple visual representations.

So, here are some key questions you need to ask to ensure your organisation’s visualisations are worth a thousand words:

  1. Does it tell a compelling story quickly?
  2. Does it help the audience analyse and understand your data or information as opposed to just presenting it?
  3. Is it accurate and easy to understand?
  4. Can it be easily shared online while remaining attributable to you?
  5. Is it mobile friendly (i.e. easy to view on tablets and smartphones)?
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