In an image-saturated society, we can say that visuals are becoming more than just embellishments to content. If a face can launch a thousand ships, an Instagram picture can launch a thousand likes — and/or dislikes. Has it always been like this?
Last year, there was a social media incident where a seemingly harmless photo made its circulation on Facebook that caused a startling reaction. Empty seats on a bus were mistaken for a group of burqa-clad ladies that was then deemed “tragic, terrifying and disgusting” by the members of the Norwegian Anti-Immigrant group. This was indeed an unfortunate case where irrational fear clouded rational judgments where “people see what they want to see — and what these people wanted to see were dangerous Muslims” as noted by Rune Berglund Steen (2017), the head of Norway’s Antiracist Center. This is an interesting case where a visual, no matter how irrelevant, suddenly becomes important simply because the brain is wired to perceive the visual as such.
The literal meaning of visual — everything that can be seen — indicates that a person must possess the sense of sight and the ability to process the shapes that cross his or her eyes whether of natural origin or man-made. If we are to examine this in the context of creative visuals, we could include ‘everything produced or created by humans that can be seen’. This means that the visual and media output produced or created by humans for the purpose of visual representations serve as communications. Unfortunately, much of the time, when we discuss the importance of visuals, it is often associated with specialized areas such as pedagogy delivery, communication, marketing strategy, advertising etc. where it is used as a tool to relay information in a perceivable manner from one party to another. With the increasing demands for visual output, we tend to overlook the effects of creative expression as an important (powerful?) aspect of contemporary society.
Of course, there are often multiple ways to interpret a visual. Many of the visuals that are familiar to us are often taken for granted since they are created solely for informative purposes such as road signs to guide us as we drive. Here the visuals utilize the concept of “form follows function” in that the form of the object is subordinated to, or follows from the working, or the functioning of that object. They are not necessarily beautiful but somewhat constrained because of the job they have to do — relay information.
Another type of visual requires the viewer to be more perceptive and appreciative of the creation since these types of visuals are created solely for aesthetic purposes in of being beautiful. Clive Bell (1914) wrote in his essay on Aesthetic Hypothesis, all art possesses ‘significant form’ and significant form is the way in which line, colours, forms and combinations of forms combine in such a way as to ‘stir’ or ‘provoke’ our aesthetic emotion. The beauty of these artistic visuals varies according to social and cultural groups and are appreciated differently.
Both approaches to images demonstrate the immense power of visuals in our daily lives. Visual components, if applied correctly, can be extremely useful and rewarding. The assumption that when imagery, color, typography, pose, perspective, lighting, unity, balance, repetition of elements work together within a powerful context that includes catchy slogans or impactful metaphoric ideas, they strike a responsive chord in the viewers where messages are conveyed effectively and can generate a positive response and support. Or sometimes, a social uproar. Therefore, designers need to be aware of how to encompass social needs and understand various perspectives in order to promote sustainable livelihoods and lifestyles rather than do more harm.