The Art Of Visual Content: Lessons From The Masters

5 Visual Content Guidelines To Help You [Examples]

Rembrant Self Portrait Ever wonder why art students set up easels in museums making poor imitations of Rembrandts?

Imitating the masters gives you insights into what it takes to create a masterpiece. But more is needed.

While practice improves your skill, you have to go beyond making second-rate copies of other people’s work, whether it’s the great masters or another brand’s content marketing.

Like art, not everyone who creates visual content becomes a master. You need to consider all of the factors that contributed to the creation of the original work. To appreciate this, here’s a story about understanding art. Rembrant Self Portrait

At MOMA, my mother went up to 2 children looking at an artist’s self-portrait where he held his palette. In her best museum docent’s voice, she asked them, “What hand does the artist use?”

When they looked at her funny, she took out her compact mirror and held it up to the painting. Their faces lit up. By looking in the mirror, they could see that the artist was left-handed. This breakthrough allowed my mother to get the children to form their own impressions of the painting.

Similarly, you need to ask the proper questions about your visual content before you publish to ensure that your audience fully appreciates its message and information. Remember they won’t have a guide to ask them the appropriate questions.

5 Visual content guidelines

Here are 5 tips with examples to help you create visual content masterpieces – proving that visual content is a winner.

1. Grab your audience’s attention.

Without this, your visual content is lost. While it’s part of our DNA to take in and process visual information, you need a hook to lure your target audience in. Bear in mind that what works for one group may be totally unremarkable for another. Here are some guideposts.

  • Show action. Seize the moment. It doesn’t have to be stop action to portray what’s happening. It can be viewed through other people’s eyes.  I love this photo from Lululemon-Athletica. The photo of Bette Calman in her 80s doing yoga says it all.  | meet bette calman - blog lululemon athletica-2
  • Include people, especially their faces. Use human scale to convey information. You don’t have to say something is tall if you put a person next to it. Also, people look for other people.
  • Take advantage of color to make information stand out. It can be one object that’s colored or a tint.

2. Tell your story with images.

There’s a reason that a picture is worth a 1,000 words. It tells an entire story by providing context, color and framework for your message.

  • Add emotional value to your message. Depending on how your image is rendered, you can make your graphic look old or new. Here’s a photograph of Absolut Texas in time for SXSW.  Visual Content Guidelines - Absolut Texas
  • Include specific details. Specificity adds depth and makes your image pop. For example, consider the difference between looking at a mass of people at a concert versus the close up of a few spectators. You can tell a lot more from the few expressions.
  • Borrow another storyline and make it yours. Here’s an example of Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, a local, classic sandwich shop that did a spin on Breaking Bad to capture attention on Fifth Avenue.  Visual Content Guideline - Heidi Cohen


3. Incorporate your brand.

Your brand encompasses more than just your name or logo. It’s extended to how your graphics are presented whether your brand is the focus of the message or not.

  • Use your 360° brand. This means incorporating the elements that are most important to convey your message.
  • Be consistent. Adapt your brand to meet the needs of the time of year or event. Google (via Google Doodles) is great at changing their classic look to convey their message. Ask what will set your brand apart and make it recognizable.  Visual Content Guideline - Google Doodle


4. Utilize symbols where appropriate.

Visual content can incorporate text, numbers or other types of symbols to convey your message. For example, as a lace knitter, I use charts to read knitting instructions concisely rather than pages of text describing each stitch.

  • Chart your content to show relationships quickly and easily. This is a great way to portray information. Here’s a chart I use to show why user generated content is difficult. Visual Content Guideline
  • Provide the key numbers. Don’t drown your audience in data. Show the salient facts and make them stand out.  Make sure that the numbers are significant to your readers. If not, then consider how else you can portray them to have a bigger impact. In this example, SAP showed one fact with a related image for their 99 Facts on the Future of Business.  SAP Slideshare - Visual Content Guideline
  • Use text in images. Text can be effective if used sparingly. I love this photograph of Disney, the king of commercial images.  disney on Instagram-2
  • Get graphic. Use visual information to convey your message. IBM did this with fractals.
    Visual Content Guideline - Factals


5. Format visual content for optimal consumption.

Visual content comes in a variety of types. Determine which one(s) work best for your target audience and their influencers. To this end, ask who the information is intended to reach, how do they consume content and where are they when they seek the information. Use one or more of the following 9 formats. (For additional information, check out the ebook I wrote on visual content.)

  1. Photos
  2. Videos
  3. Comics/cartoons
  4. Infographics
  5. Visual note taking
  6. Non-photographic information.
  7. Presentations
  8. Ebooks
  9. Activity Books Marketo-Big-Marketing-Activity-Coloring-Book-1

Unlike art students, your goal isn’t content imitation. Rather your objective is to create amazing content that re-imagines the best of the content marketers and adapts it to your brand and message making it uniquely yours, not a copy.

What other visual content guidelines would you recommend? Did you learn these lessons from the masters?

Happy Marketing,
Heidi Cohen

Heidi CohenHeidi Cohen is the President of Riverside Marketing Strategies. You can find Heidi on , Facebook and .

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