The Real Tools of Visual Communication

Whether you’re a Corel nerd, an Affinity connoisseur, or part of the Adobe cognoscenti, we all love the tools we use to accomplish our designs, even when we’re using a compass and our favourite 2B pencil, we take a lot of pride in our chosen tools of design…


Though one set of tools which often get’s overlooked is the tools we use for clear communication through our designs, and these should be sharpened and polished just as much as your premiere 2B graphite pencil imported from Yugoslavia.

These include things like:

  1. Tone
  2. Metaphor
  3. Symbol Style
  4. Didactics
  5. Poetics


Any successful design is one which reaches your desired audience and gives them a desired emotion.


The tools which we use in this pursuit have to evoke an emotional response and leave the casual passerby receptive the message being told to them.


Smiley face creator Harvey Ball, of Worcester, Mass., autographs posters of the internationally recognized symbol for good cheer in his office on Monday, July 6, 1998 in Worcester, Mass. Ball, 76, is upset over French entrepreneur Franklin Loufrani's claim that he created the symbol.(AP Photo/Paul Connors) Smiley-Erfinder Harvey Ball unterschreibt am 6. Juli 1998 in seinem Büro in Wocester, Massachussetts, ein Poster mit dem Strahle-Symbol.

The not so smiley creator of the iconic yellow 'Simley' []


If it’s getting them to want to read a story in a magazine, donate money to a charity, or RSVPing to a wedding invitation in nine months time, all these, as small as some might seem, need to affect your emotional state while telling you a message clear enough for them to take action in some way – which will be done a variety of ways…


Through Tone


A lot like the pitch and cadence we speak through the day, your tone of voice will change the intention behind your words. This is the same with the tone of your designs.


The tone you communicate needs to encompass the product or service somehow.


If you are designing the packaging for luxury branded chocolates you may decide to use a very posh script typeface and use colours such as gold, and deep saturated tones such as this classic After Eight identity





When we compare that with the Matchmakers identity, we are given a totally different emotion.




When given a known franchise which already has a reputation built on top of it you’ll need to respect and enhance that emotion, for example, if you were designing the poster for a new Superman movie, you probably wouldn’t employ the use of Comic Sans for the copy.


Of course, it can be a lot more creative than simply picking an appropriate typeface, as DesignBridge demonstrated with their packaging for ‘by Hoogesteger’; a “pick and press” fruit drinks company from the Netherlands.

by Design Bridge [Hoogesteger]


They incorporated cut wrapping in the form of silhouetted fruit shapes to highlight the ‘real’ ingredients; drawing attention to the authenticity of the product while also backing it up with the name of the company in a signature-like design; adding consumer confidence to the product with a sort of ‘approval’.


From this example we can see, one of the key objectives in the brief was to probably convey trust between the company and their targeted audience.




No, not dianetics, you won’t need to work your way up any stiff hierarchy here.


Didactics means translating the use of practical information and sometimes complex information in a clear, concise and immediate way… for example:






It’s unlikely you would see a stop sign and think “not to stop”. The use of capitals, clear spacing, flat hexagonal edges and the power of the colour red tells us that we need to divert our attention as soon as possible and follow instruction… STOP!


Airport signage is well-known for this as it needs to bypass all language barriers and communicate vital messages in navigating the mess (and stress) of an airport.





Symbol Style


Of course, in amongst the precision of creating a sign which can be interpreted by all and mistaken by none, you also have the style and what emotions it can evoke.


Splitting up represented meaning into two categories you have the signifier and the signified.


The signifier can change in a variety of styles and alter the tone of the service, product or environment people are entering.


The signified, on the other hand, is the actual meaning behind the message. You need to retain this at all costs, otherwise, you won’t know which is the boy’s room or the girl’s room.




I recently was in an HMV Curzon cinema and noticed the toilets there have height sized Clint Eastwood on the men’s toilet door and Audrey Hepburn directing the use of women’s toilets.


This is a fun way of showing the toilets while keeping true HMV Curzon’s “for film lovers” brand.



Designed by Otl Aicher, the Olympic pictograms used in the 1972 Munich Olympics remain a great example of style and function. They convey the message of the sport quickly and effectively while additionally showing a more dynamic competitive element through the images.


Note that football isn’t simply a football or hockey simply a hockey stick. These would’ve communicated the sport just as fast and efficiently though probably not as effectively, seeing as the competitive tone of the Olympics would have been missed.



1972-olympic-games-pictograms copy 2

1972-olympic-games-pictograms copy 1972-olympic-games-pictograms Hockey

by Otl Aicher [1972 Munich Olympics]




Using a visual metaphor is how you get an idea to stick in the viewer’s mind. It gets the person to stop reading and start participating in the design.


Some images, over time, have become such strong visual metaphors already:





It works by triggering associations which the mind is naturally adapted for and by doing so you are getting the view to participate and invest more time in your design.


by Milton Glaser [I Love New York]
A letter, a symbol, and an abbreviation.


Repeated through frequency and public positioning logos themselves will become metaphors


In 1995, Nike just about had it with wasting ink on printing the word ‘Nike’ over and over. So they scrapped it and now solely use the iconic ‘Swoosh’ to communicate the sports brand.


by Carolyn Davidson [Nike Swoosh]


Of course, not all companies can be so bold. While Uber has a simplified logo without the word ‘Uber’, they still need to include it all advertising for their brand to get the right traction.

by Tom Haugomat and BBH London 
[Uber, Be anywhere effortlessly campaign]




To me, poetic form in design is design at its the most… intriguing, though probably not at it’s most functional…


It can only really work if you:

  • Want to provoke or stir controversy with your audience
  • Want to tease your audience
  • Want thoughtful responses
  • Or want to promote ambiguity in your communication


A purely artistic design has the ability to really grab the attention of your audience and hold their interest long enough to unlock your design piece.


Although, poetic form has much less immediacy and as a result can be less accessible to the masses.


Check out this design below, and try to make it out:


by Fons Hickmann [The Nonexisting Nothing]


This is an example of an exhibition poster which demands your time.


It is far from immediate, the letters are spaced wildly and the image is drastically blurred.


If they spent the placement budget on motorway billboards, it would certainly not be the best use of budget.


Though when we take it in context of the exhibition, it works fantastically. The exhibition titled ‘Man and God’ is about the mystery which surrounds the idea of God and it’s relationship with man.


With this in mind, the designer decided to use a blurred image of the ‘Shroud of Turin’; an artefact of debate said to outline the body and face of Jesus Christ. He also incorporated extremely wide spacing to the text leaving the message just as cryptic as what the exhibition suggests, and the yellow used expresses a murky ambiguity and mystery. All working together to voice the exhibition… you just need to give it time.


For the most part, poetic form lends itself best for exhibitions, galleries, music posters, albums, etc. I don’t really know why yet, it just does.


by Robert Beatty [Tame Impala - Currents]


by Peter Saville [Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures]


by Milton Glaser [Bob Dylan]

by Milton Glaser [Bob Dylan]


Lightly speaking, all designers will incorporate these tools for effective communication.


From the Tone of the design; allowing the mission of the product, service, etc, to be expressed. The practicality of Didactics while employing a Style to simple signs which give the desired emotion to your audience. Using Visual Metaphors for quick associations, impact and immediacy. And above all, to remember that you have to create beautiful work. You are an artist, no matter what beret-wearing beatnik says otherwise. Just because it has more visibility and less indelibility there’s no reason why it shouldn’t move people and help them discover new worlds.