Besides color and typography, visual style includes elements such as photography, illustration, and other graphic motifs, including borders and frames. Selecting the right kinds of visual elements can have a surprising impact on customer response to an advertisement or package design. As early as the 1930s, some marketers had an established wisdom about what customers liked to see in a brand; others, such as Louis Cheskin in Chicago, paid greater attention to researching how customers reacted to individual elements such as colors, shapes, materials, and the overall aesthetics of a given design.
Cheskin discovered, for example, that simple changes, such as packaging margarine in yellow instead of white, adding the outline of a spoon to a box of cake mix, or emphasizing modernist style in design after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, could all have a dramatic impact on sales. Cheskin was astute enough to realize that, while what he called “sensation transference” functioned in the short-term, over the long-term tastes change, and brands need to monitor their customers’ responses constantly, and adapt accordingly.
Humans have communicated with pictures for far longer than they have with written words. It follows that realistic images are the most powerful element used in brand communication—stronger, perhaps, than the name, logo, colors, and type combined. In fact, when we speak of building a brand identity we speak of “image building.”
Photographs or lifelike illustrations are the central focus of almost every advertisement and a good deal of packaging, especially where the contents are not visible. Very little brand communication consists of text only. The exceptions prove the rule—the very absence of images is sometimes used to send a message, because the lack of pictures is so striking.
Aside from the image elements that are apparent at first glance—content, composition, and style—images frequently use tricks to influence our perception, and contain cultural references, with varying degrees of subtlety, that reinforce (or inadvertently contradict) the intended meaning of the brand.
Some of the methods used to manipulate perception include angle, point of view, juxtaposition, lighting, focus, and coloration. Carmakers, for example, give their advertising agencies specific instructions on what angles their cars must be shot from in order to create the right impression of size and personality. Some soft-drink ads manipulate our deeply rooted psychological needs and fears (and thirst) by deliberate adjustment of our perspective in relation to the people in the ad. Light can focus attention and affect our feelings about a subject. Absolut vodka ads of the 1980s used this trick explicitly. Selective focus sets up a hierarchy, forcing us to see certain objects in an image as more or less important.