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Public Communication: Visual Elements

“These days we can’t ignore the visual elements of writing for the web.”

Rick Zullo,Visual Elements of Writing for the Web

When thinking about visual elements you need to consider both the images you use and how the entire piece looks on the page.


Visuals are essential elements of most public communications and are used for several reasons. They can make a piece look more appealing and engaging to potential readers - as a large body of continuous text can be overwhelming, making readers less likely to read it. Their use isn't just about making pieces of work more approachable and readable however, they are also great vehicles to communicate potentially complex disciplinary knowledge in a way that the public can more easily understand.


Why do we use visuals?

There are several reasons for adding visuals to public communication pieces:  

  • They draw in the reader by making the piece attractive and visually stimulating.
  • They help the reader visualise your points.
  • They illustrate your points to help backup your claims and reinforce your messages.
  • They can communicate some information more effectively.
  • They emphasise important points and promote recall.
  • They break up the text making it more readable and accessible.   

Different types of visual elements

Visual elements can be divided into two types: visual evidence and visual devices.

Visual evidence

Visuals can be highly effective forms of evidence to back up the points and claims made in your work. Some photographs can illustrate points more effectively than words; charts can make complex data more approachable; diagrams can show connections and infographics can illustrate data and show the connections between them. 

Visual devices

These are visual elements that draw attention to particular points and/or make the piece more approachable/readable. Some can be images, such as icons acting as informative bullet points or header images drawing the attention of the reader. They also include a number of design elements:

  • Columns prevent long line length making it more readable.
  • White space and line breaks break up text and can be used to emphasise points.
  • Borders and boxes make things stand out, as well as tidy up the text.
  • Headings help with organisation and keep it visually interesting by putting text into sections.
  • Pull quotes grab the reader’s attention.
  • Bullet points give more white space, make the structure interesting, and points concise.
  • Differentiating text – font, size, colour and style – make the text look more dynamic whilst emphasising specific words and phrases.

Tips for the effective use of images

Make sure your images are of good quality

The should not be blurry, pixelated or distorted in any way. Blurring or pixelation usually comes from using an image that is not big enough - try using a reverse image search to find a bigger version of the same image. Another good tip is to make sure you use the corner handles when resizing images in all Office 365 apps - this keeps the aspect ratio of the image intact.


Spend time finding the right image

Don't just find the first image that vaguely meets your search criteria. Consider the messaging in the image - for example, are the people appropriately diverse? Also consider the colour scheme of your overall piece, is there an image that better fits in with this? (Or can you adapt your colour scheme to fit the image if it is perfect for your needs?).


Be careful how you mix image types

It can look unprofessional if you mix too many different types of image such as cartoons, photographs, icons and drawings. If images are doing the same job, then make them all the same type. For example, you can use a photograph in the background of an area and have a list of icons on top of it but you should not mix icons with cartoons in the same list.


Position them appropriately

If you are using visuals to back up your points, consider where you place them and how you refer to them in the text (if needed). More formal public communications (like some reports) may use figure numbers and captions and require you refer to them in your text as (see Fig 1) before you position the figure. Whereas, less formal pieces (such as magazine articles, blogs etc.) would just have a caption without a figure number and it is only the proximity to the relevant text that makes the connection.


Use Alt-text for accessibility

If your piece is digital, rather than print, make sure your meaningful visuals use alt-text to make your work accessible to those with visual impairments. Alt-text should summarise the image and the reason for its use; if it is there for decorative reasons this should be stated. In Office 365 you add alt-text by right clicking on the image and choosing Edit Alt-Text from the menu.


Visual Communication

Some visuals can communicate messages in a way that requires little or no text. For example, complex emotions are commonly portrayed through gifs or a single emoji. Sometimes, these can communicate our feelings more effectively than a long message and the receiver will completely understand what we are trying to say.

We live in a fast-paced world, with consumers constantly bombarded by information. With a 'scroll culture', we often need to grab attention quickly before it disappears up the screen - so being able to convey information in a format that can be taken in and understood quickly is particularly beneficial - visual communication is perfect for this.

Examples can be found in nearly every industry but it is particularly notable in advertising. Effective advertisements have simple designs using imagery to promote a brand, message, or important information. They will use little or sometimes no text and yet we as consumers know exactly what is being advertised.

Effective Visual Communication

Effective visual communication will convey information in a concise way that is easy to understand whilst engaging viewers by being attractive and eye catching. With a public communication piece, you must always be considering the most effective way to communicate your message. This usually involves not overwhelming them and drawing their attention with interesting visuals:

Spectrum of effective visual communications. On the left there are two images of ineffective communications, posters with a lot of text and elements with barely any neutral space, on the right there are infographics and posters which have a clear message which is communicated effectively

  

The example below shows how a presentation using only text (left) is less attractive and engaging than one that uses multiple modes of communication (right), in this instance they use text and imagery to illustrate their points. They use less text, but are still getting their message across to the audience.

On the left there is a slide which only has text, on the right the same information is portrayed using a mixture of images and text. When using multiple modes of communication you don't need as much text to convey a message. 

A diagram or graph will help explain complex data in a way your audience will understand. It also gets the message across more quickly than a large chunk of text does. Retaining attention whilst conveying your message is a crucial part of public communications.  

Examples of a pie chart, line chart and clustered column chart


Multi-modal communication 

With most public communication pieces produced as academic work, you will be using a mixture of text and images, meaning you are involved in multi-modal communication where different forms of communication are used together. This can be through the spoken and/or written word, audio, images, videos, gestures etc.. Even your formatting choices and tone of voice can communicate information. 

Multi-modal assessments are becoming more common in academia. You may be asked to deliver a presentation, create a poster, infographic, or blog post. These all use multiple modes of communication to present information. Different modes are processed in different parts of the brain meaning more information can be communicated simultaneously, make these more effective than single mode alternatives.

There are five modes of multi-modal communication (from the New London Group):

Linguistic/Alphabetic

The most common way we communicate - through written and spoken words. Any written text, email, written assignment, messages etc come into this category, but also any audio such as podcasts, automated messages and immersive readers.   

Visual

Any type of visual element used to communicate, such as images, videos, fonts, designs, gifs and so on.  

Aural

This includes music and the spoken word. For example, a narrator of an audio book will use different pitches and tones of voice to portray emotions and they may even use different voices and accents for different characters. This immerses the readers/listeners into the book more than just reading it.  

Diagram/ nest of the 5 multi modal communication types

Gestural

Communication through movement, expression and body language. An extreme example of this would be sign language for those with hearing impairments, but hand gestures or body language used to emphasise our linguistic communication are very common.

Spatial

This mode is used a lot in design as it can refer to the layout and organisation of a document. The physical arrangement of text and visual elements impacts how the audience will take in the information.  


Use Legal Images 

If you are using images designed for public communication, then any that you do not create yourself should have appropriate copyright status. We have a guide to accessing free resources, including sound, video and images, on our Digital Students SkillsGuide: Finding Free Resources.

Even if you use free image sites such as Flickr or Pixabay, you need to be aware of their licensing. When using images make sure you have the right to use them, check out our Licensing & Copyright Guide for information on Creative Commons and other licensing.  

You can also search for free to use images on a search engine:  

"Filter" is circled as this is where you want to go to make the toolbar in the next image viewable on Bing 

Click "filter" on the right-hand side of the screen when using Bing.

Showing where the licensing drop down menu is on Bing  

Use the “license” drop down menu to search for free images, some you will be able to modify and use for commercial use. Make sure you are aware of the license before using the image.  

A web search for images of people studying and showing the licensing drop down menu 

[Screenshots from Microsoft Bing]

For academic purposes, you should cite all images (that you have not generated yourself) just as you would textual sources. Check out our Referencing Guide.