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How a Well Thought-Out Image Can Affect Your Message


A solid piece of advertising, at it’s most minimal, is comprised of imagery and text. These two elements work together to form a strong and vital message that speaks to the viewer and makes them believe in whatever the ad happens to be selling. That sounds simple enough, but about that image — how exactly does one determine what type of image will be the most effective for your creative? For one take on this topic, I looked to one of my favorite “textbooks” from college — Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.

Above is Mr. McCloud’s visualization of the “Picture Plane.” Basically, it demonstrates the varying ways in which artists can choose to portray places, people, and objects.

The lower left-hand corner of the pyramid is the photographic image. This is the most REALISTIC and literal way in which an object can be represented. As you follow that bottom edge to the right, you will see that the portrayals get more and more simple and “cartoony.” It ends with the SYMBOLIC “smiley face” (and then, words, the epitome of symbolic image).

How to compare the effectiveness of a photograph versus that of a “cartoony” illustrative image? According to Scott McCloud, photographs and photo-realistic illustrations work great for portraying the detailed physicality of something in reality. However, in lacking said detail, illustrations actually give people a better chance of understanding the content on a more universal level. In his own words:

In emphasizing the concepts of objects over their physical appearance, much has to be omitted. If an artist wants to portray the beauty and complexity of the physical world, realism of some sort is going to play a part.

Here’s an example of how this works:

Above you see two images with similar subject matter: two people, a man and a woman, enjoying glasses of wine at a nice restaurant. They seem similar enough, but ask yourself this: Which image / scene could you more easily imagine yourself into?

If you think like Scott McCloud, your answer will be “the illustration.” The silhouetted figures are clearly human, but beyond that we don’t know much about them (race, age, hair color?). So, in theory, it’s easier to believe that they could be like you. Your imagination can tell you whether she’s blonde or brunette, or if he’s 25 or 50. Because of that, the illustration offers a more symbolic, UNIVERSAL representation.

On the other hand, the photograph doesn’t leave much to the imagination. We clearly see the age and race of the people featured in the image. This level of detail makes it difficult for us to imagine ourselves in this couple’s place.

So, how does this relate to images in marketing creative? Using Mr. McCloud’s theory about how these two images work differently, we can make an educated guess as to when each of these would be more effective.

Illustrations tend to do a good job of representing a general idea or concept. Maybe you have a landing page that advertises a “Free Dinner for Two.” In this situation, it’s not important WHO is at dinner, it just matters that they are having a nice, romantic time. The CONCEPT of having dinner is more important than the people, the place, or even what color wine they are drinking.

On the other hand, photographic images are more effective when the appearance or physicality of something matters. A landing page advertising a brand new restaurant can use photographs to show off their trendy new decor. Perhaps they want to connect to their target audience of young, hip professionals by showing this young couple. Or maybe their healthy menu is a selling point (re: salad on the table). All of these points would be ENHANCED by the photograph, and could not be portrayed half as well in an illustration. In this case, the photograph is clearly the better choice.

In sum, Scott McCloud’s theory states that the more symbolic in nature (and the less detailed) an image is, the more universally people will connect with it. To that point, there are times when both illustrations AND photos can work better for your creative.

Have you seen a pattern in your own company’s creative concerning the use of illustration versus photography? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Works Cited
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1994. Print.
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