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Newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane was first credited for the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words” in 1911. No doubt, the concept was not specific to him and millions of other people certainly had this idea for eons before him, but he’s the one who said it best. And he couldn’t have been more right.

We’ve all seen it in action and the idea is even more relevant today than it was back then. Long before we’ve read a single word. Well before we even have any idea about what we’re reading, we tend to take-in all of the imagery surrounding the text on the page. It provides much needed context. Feel. Structure. Mood. All these things.

Whether you’re writing an article, designing a logo, working on a slide presentation for work or contemplating your own website layout, it’s best to give primary thought to the quality of the images you use in your work. Without great imagery, your work (and your brand) is going to be a lot less effective than you’d hoped.

IMG_1330In fact, I’d go so far as to say that your imagery is the most significant factor in communicating your ideas to your target audience. Why? Because without fantastic imagery, your audience may not even go so far as to consider your message. The message is important, but the way your message is communicated is even more important.

Granted, not everyone is a visual learner. Some people really thrive on the written word, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Each market segment will have its own preferences and there’s a time and place for everything. But there’s little doubt in my mind that every message can be made more effective when combined with the right imagery.

Which brings us to the question, what’s your most dominant visual element? Is it your logo? The color of your slides? Your image on your homepage? Whatever you’re working on, always remember that the image you select as your most dominant visual element sets the tone for the action you’re asking your audience to take.  And yes, you should always select a dominant visual element. If you don’t have have one or know what it is, this would be the time to figure that out. Ask yourself what’s really important about your message and combine that answer with the imagery you feel will best support that goal.

Here are some aspects of your imagery you may wish to consider when coming up with your design solutions…


I’m a big believer in authenticity. Nowhere is this more important than in choosing your most dominant visual element. Whatever image you choose, make it authentic. This is especially important when choosing images that include your personal image (as in branding). Nothing encourage viewer anxiety than an image that lacks integrity. Just don’t do it. Here’s a visual for you.

Ever seen those cheesy photos in real estate ads of an agent on their phone? Yep, I’d stay away from that agent too. That’s the last agent on the planet I’d choose. No one wants to work with someone like that. It makes them seem cheesy, shallow, lacking sincerity, and a host of other emotions come to mind when you take that image into your mental databank. Is the ability to talk on the phone the most important message they meant to communicate? Probably not. I’d like to think anyone can do that, and they can. I’ll pass. 

Be authentic and do you best to communicate one of the basic human emotions (anger, fear, surprise, disgust, happiness and sadness) to your audience. Build your connection.


And just what is this connection I speak of? It’s the bond you wish to form with your audience. This bond can take many different forms, but essentially, you want to effectively communicating with your audience through one of the emotions mentioned above. If you connect properly and have something to offer (substance), you stand an even chance of forming a bond with this person. If not, you just become a faceless part of their past as they go on to find someone who can connect with them.  Connect through emotion and you’ll be more successful.

Active vs. Passive

Is your imagery active or passive? If you want to appear competent, then that should be reflected in your dominant visual element. You may wish to appear successful, caring, professional, loving…whatever it is, use your visual elements to support your message. The two major, broad-based categories for imagery are active and passive. Are you attempting to state an action or simply attempting to describe something that’s happened to you (an experience) to build that bond with your audience? Use your most dominant visual element to support the active (persuasive) aspects of your message or a more reserved image to say “Look, this happened to me too and here’s what I did about it.”

Color Theory

Color selections are incredibly important in establishing the mood of your communication. The theory behind the colors you may want to use is well beyond the scope of this article, but to simplify the idea, try choosing between cool (black, gray, violets, blue and darker green) and warm (red, orange, yellow, and lighter green) color palettes when working on your most dominant visual element. Think of it this way…

  • You wouldn’t expect to see a group of people wearing all black at a birthday party (normally, anyway)
  • You wouldn’t expect to see festive colors at a funeral
  • Sad people are “blue.”
  • Happy people generally wear lighter colors.
  • Corporate/professional colors are generally cool colors (dark blue, deep red…reserved)
  • Fun colors are warm colors (yellows, red, orange…active)


Where is your most dominant visual element located? While there are always exceptions to the rule, the rule is to place your most dominant visual element near the top of the pages or in one of the Rule of Thirds quadrant intersections if designing an image. Here are some placement guides for web pages…

  • Place your image in a dominant hierarchy pattern: Make it larger than other items on the page, place it near the top of the page, place it close to the left-hand side of the page. We read top to bottom, left to right. The item furthest to the left at the top receives the highest priority from your audience.
  • If you’re not going to place your image on the top left, enlarge your image to make it more noticeable and give it the size and presence it deserves. If you’re only using one image, this is easy enough. If you’re using multiple images, increase the size of your most dominant visual element so that it receives the priority of attention. That way, your audience knows what’s most important.
  • Center your most dominant visual element above or to the left of your other images.

Saturation, Brightness & Contrast

You can give your dominant visual element a higher priority by giving it a saturation, brightness and contrast boost. If you’re using multiple images, take your dominant image into your favorite photo-editing software, give it a little more brightness than the other images, increase the contrast just a bit, then push the saturation up slightly until it’s just a little more lively than the other images. Brightness and contrast boosts work for achromatic (black & white) images as well and will assist your viewers in distinguishing among other less important visual elements.

Focus, Clarity & Proportion (as it relates to web design)

Website header images are the most dominant visual element in your website. If you choose not to use a header and use a dominant image near the top of each page, the same rules apply. Make sure the image(s) is in focus, has sufficient clarity and doesn’t stretch beyond its intended limit when the screen is resized. This is particularly important in personal branding sites. If you are the brand, your image proportions should never, ever change. No matter what you have to do, make sure your personal image maintains the proportions designated in the original photo.

No matter what your dominant visual element is, it can almost always be improved. As I mentioned, there are always exceptions to the rule, but if you’re going to operate by exception, always know why you’re doing it. I realize that this is a big picture summary of general layout rules, but it should help someone who just needs general guidance and those who want to learn some things that will immediately help improve their overall work. I’ll elaborate more on the specifics of each of these recommendations in future posts.

No matter what you choose as your dominant visual element, give it the priority it deserves.