Since the beginning of mankind, human beings have always attempted to represent the world around them visually. Cave paintings which are several thousand years old provide fascinating proof that images have always held a significant culture-fostering role, even at the start of human existence. Very early on, at a time when spoken and written languages were merely in crude stages of development or not yet invented, the primordial human desire for communication, documentation and aesthetics found its expression in images.

Pictures Are Faster Than Words

Here you could refer to a famous Bible quote, but with a twist: “In the beginning, there was The Word – but The Picture got there a bit earlier”. That’s an issue that would certainly ensure a lively debate with a theologian. Fact is, however, that for even the most articulate people, an image still finds its way into the brain faster than a text. The entire informational content of an image is processed all at once, while information in written form is processed sequentially, ‘digested’ word for word, and needs to be converted into a useful piece of information.

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Illustration is especially important in journalism and advertising. Evidently, in a newspaper article or an advertisement, the image is perceived before the text. If the image has been appropriately selected, within a fraction of a second the viewer will have a rough idea of what the article is about, deciding then whether to read the accompanying text or turn the page (or perhaps keep surfing). This is also the reason why budding newspaper editors are taught to place a compelling image at the top of each page, in order to grab the reader’s interest and draw them into an article while they’re glancing quickly through the paper in the morning. A lead photo provides an easy to comprehend, representative preview of the information which will be provided in detail within the article.

Images Evoke Emotions

All images have something in common, namely, their creators want to reach other people and elicit a reaction via the imagery. Images can entertain and instruct, explain facts and circumstances or clarify specific aspects of an issue, plus they are capable of arousing emotions. Visual imagery performs many functions: From the sober, factual pictogram of a cigarette with a diagonal slash placed before it, which lets us know that smoking is prohibited, to the poster with the appetizing cheese that makes our mouths water, or the news photos from war-torn and crisis-ridden parts of the world, which may leave us shocked and horrified while filling us with compassion. Images can also give us a deeper understanding of the past, whether it’s our own family history nestled in the pages of a photo album or the images chronicling global events in a history book.

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Since its invention in the 19th century, photography has had a strong influence on the way we view the world around us. Technical image manipulation methods aside, photography (unlike graphic design and painting) can only produce a depiction of what is in front of the camera lens. Photography, therefore, offers the highest level of realistic depiction among all forms of imagery. This fact leads viewers to already bestow a certain degree of trust in a photographic image. A photo appears more objective and credible than a painting – however, that’s not to say that photos aren’t also deliberately manipulated to render a distorted view of reality to delude the viewer. The visual experiences resulting from real-world observation are the barometers we use to evaluate a photo as expressive, boring or unnatural, and to decide if a picture has turned out well or badly. For instance, the use of overly bright colors might diminish the otherwise realistic appearance of a well-composed photo.

More Important Than Ever: Image Quality

The rapid expansion of the internet has also influenced our visual perception and altered the effect that images have on us. The never-before-seen volume of digital images and the resulting sensory overload they create impedes the ability to focus attention on a particular image. Users prefer information which stands out from the constantly flowing stream of data because it offers them more value in terms of experience and entertainment. The vehicles for conveying this information are first and foremost expressive images. In the seeming shallowness of the information stream, they act as anchors to hold our attention. This is the reason why contemporary advertising is increasingly favoring images over copy in campaigns to effectively present products.

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© WALTER G. ALLGÖWER/Westend61

Successful advertising also thrives on the skillful composition and selection of images. It takes just a few seconds and a few mouse clicks to access enormous online databases, which has certainly simplified the process technically. Yet having a much larger selection to choose from also encourages error-prone choices to be made. While shopping around for the right image and comparing the multitude of available options, it’s hard to resist the urge to just go for a run-of-the-mill photo instead of ponying up a bit more money for that truly expressive image. However, those who really want to effectively distinguish themselves from the competition need to appreciate the value of a good image and know that it’s an investment worth making.