Why is visual communication important? (Or, how NOT to sell a hot dog)

24 Jun

During business studies, I ran across a ratio that really spoke to me. It was:

R = Q x A

(This stands for Results equals Quality of Solution multiplied by Acceptance of the Solution). What this means is that, when applied to a communications piece, its success will be dependent on not only the quality of the communications material you produce (information and presentation) but whether it is accepted by those who it is intended to engage with.

In this case, I’m talking about producing design work and will briefly discuss how to apply this to determine whether a design solution may be successful or not.

The importance of design and visual communications is often underestimated. Often, the thought is that it is only “window dressing” or that anyone can do it – after all, look at how many people out there have a “creative flair.” In other words, it has a low value in many people’s minds. However, this is incorrect.

It is only when something important or vital is on the line where what you produce demands people understand and respond to the message that you put out there, that the importance of visual communications begins to be appreciated.

Let’s take for example, a hot dog stand.

Consider that it needs to communicate to buyers that it has hot dogs for sale. So, what else? Let’s produce a sign.

But, what’s on the line for the owner of the hot dog stand is the success or failure of the business.

In the example shown below, I ask why is the message on the left not very compelling? It’s on a bigger sign. It’s a lighter colour – so therefore brighter – don’t brighter signs attract your attention more than dark colours? Plus, the person holding it is actually friendlier than the one on the right.

Well, it’s fairly obvious, but the problem it relates to isn’t usually as easy to identify as what is shown in this example.


Here’s why the sign on the right works better (stating the obvious):

  • It includes an image of the item that the reader can identify.
  • It uses colour.
    • Colour that relates to colours seen in the product (yellow for mustard, red for ketchup and the hot dog wiener, and a tan colour for the bun – so the illustration substantively looks like the product).
    • A strong use of red also attracts the eye immediately.
  • It uses a font that is more “fun” (read: interesting, inviting, friendly, and somewhat imaginative) than the other, and hot dogs are often thought of as a “fun” food because they are available at sporting events, birthday parties, etc.

So, the sign on the right “conveys” the idea of “hot dogs” better than the plain black text on the left. “Conveying” is an important part of communication. It goes beyond the basics of communications where a concept is minimally imparted, to fully evoke a mental picture, or clearer understanding of what is being communicated.

“Okay,” says the man on the left. “I can play that game too.”


Okay, now this is getting silly. Clearly, that fish sandwich is not a hot dog.

But, the illustration is to make a point.

When you see the sign on the left, do you get a sense of detachment from what you are familiar with?

Not only does the “hot dog” look wrong, but, why are the words, “Hot Dogs,” in blue? Blue is a colour that we least associate with food. It just looks wrong altogether.

The point here is: there are many ways to get things wrong when communicating visually (even when it appears that there is a clear intention of using elements previously known to work – but perhaps they are being used incorrectly or just slightly off). After all, the sign on the left uses an image and colour (where it didn’t previously). But, it didn’t improve things. One could say that it made a bad concept more vivid.

Elements to consider:

  • Images: Is an image needed? Is it an honest reflection of the product? Does it “Read” correctly? (For example, improperly lighting for a food product shot could make it look like it is discoloured or spoiled.) How do people react to the image?
  • Fonts: Typography are the clothes that words dress up in to put their best “face” forward (see what I did there?). Either be absolutely clear or use typography in a strategic way so that it supports communication.
  • Colour: Is colour being used effectively, or just in a way that YOU like those colours?

Note: if you don’t have the skills to understand why one image “reads” better than another, or how typography can add personality to your message, or whether the use of colour is being applied strategically, then you would need to work with a skilled graphic designer.

Assess effectiveness

If we go back to the R=QxA equation, how do we rate the two signs? While this is by no means science, let’s rate on a scale of 100 (so that means that both the quality of solution and acceptance are rated out of a maximum of 10 point each). (If the design solution got top marks of 10 points on quality of solution and acceptance, we multiply them to get to a maximum of 100 points or 100%).

On the left we have a very low quality of solution (let’s say 2 points). Multiply it by a very low acceptance rate of 2 (R = 2 x 2) and we get a 4% effective solution as our result (4=2×2). (Anything below 50% would be a fail, by the way). So, not only is this a monumental fail that would hurt hot dog sales, but it may hurt the business’ reputation for other food as well.

On the right we have a very strong but somewhat stereotyped sign that has a medium-high quality (let’s say it’s a 7) and a high acceptance rate of 9. The result is 63% effective. (R=QxA or 63 = 7 x 9)

You may ask, “That’s still a kind of low-ish score. How would you get a higher score, as in the 90% range?” This is where knowing your audience exactly would come into play because a sign could be developed specifically for the likes, needs, tastes, and interests of one particular group.

For example, typical advertising techniques could include showing a beautifully photographed hot dog, perhaps photos of people enjoying a hot dog, and options for how you may buy and prepare your hot dog (clear pricing, special offers, combo deals, etc.).

Note: Don’t get too hung up on this rating system as it is all subjective, and a score of 100% is probably impossible. But, as a shorthand way of evaluating communications, it’s helpful.

So, back to my original statement: It’s only when you have something on the line (in the example shown, what’s on the line is the success or failure of the business itself) that you begin to appreciate what effective visual communications can do for you.

If your livelihood relies on producing a sign that will convince people to buy hot dogs from you, you will want that communication to be as effective as possible, and take steps to ensure it works.

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