Your ultimate guide to visual communication

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As children, we’re introduced to visual communication through picture books and children’s TV shows that rely on bright colors and illustrations, coupled with narrative, to open up the world and teach us about everything we need to know.

And today, thanks to the explosion of the internet and its influence on every part of our lives, every type of communication has become more and more visual, across all industries and mediums. Black and white TV turned color, and then HD, and now lives in our pockets. Phone calls gave way to FaceTime and other video calls, where participants can see visual cues from their friends and families instead of just listening to them.

And brand storytelling has become increasingly visual, too. Photos and video clips accompany news stories, infographics provide foundational context for understanding issues and ideas, and social media has moved past status updates and text-only Tweets. Presentations can no longer just be text-heavy slides that presenters read to their audience, and advertisements lean heavily on photography, video, and other visual media.

Videos, photos, illustrations, and graphs have made their way into virtually every realm of storytelling and communication. Even books need the perfectly designed cover, and school textbooks are no longer wall-to-wall text or equations.

In this article, we’re covering everything you need to know to know about visual strategies — including the benefits of visual communication and how you can use it effectively within your organization to increase connection among your team and with your audience.

What is visual communication?

Visual communication design is the process of using visual elements to convey ideas, information, and data. Visual elements can encompass photos, videos, graphs, typography, charts, maps, and illustrations. You likely encounter some form of visual communication every day, from the emoji in that email from your colleague to the poster in the bathroom that explains the correct protocol for washing hands.

Essentially, any medium that uses visual assets to give meaning, add context, or evoke emotion falls can be classified as visual communication. Visual communication is often part of a company’s visual brand, but the terms are not interchangeable: visual branding is a combination of all the elements you choose to represent your company, and visual communication is a strategy to connect better with audiences and convey specific information.

Visual communication tools are often used in all forms of marketing, but especially in social media and in content marketing, which involves creating and distributing valuable information to attract a targeted audience. Common visual assets in content marketing include photography to spice up blog posts, videos that can be embedded in newsletters or publicized on social media, and whitepapers full of infographics.

The Canva Visual Worksuite has seven visual communication tools for any work style and audience. From Canva Docs, to interactive virtual Whiteboards, to a team video editor, the Visual Worksuite was built to support collaborative visual design.

After you create and finalize your designs, schedule them right from Canva.

Why is visual communication important?

Humans are visual creatures, and visual communication leads to better information recall. Research on visual communication design in media published in the Journal of Contemporary Educational Research found that interactive, modern designs “improve the impact of digital advertising visual communication.” Most people (almost 50%) have a visual learning style, and prefer visual content to help them learn and retain information more effectively.

Both in marketing and advertising as well as in internal team communication, visual communication helps add clarity and highlight the most important information — making the end product more memorable than it’d be if it was just a wall of text.

How does visual storytelling help in marketing and advertising?

Visuals can be used to communicate ideas that words simply cannot. A recent study found that visual communication improved both memory and overall learning for undergraduate students.

As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words: there’s a good reason that the advertising industry relies heavily on visual mediums, such as videos, social posts with bright, saturated photography, and billboards. Since its launch in 2021, more than 1B videos have been made with Canva — users are seeing huge amounts of engagement from their posts and making video a key part of their marketing and advertising strategy.

Customize this billboard template in Canva.

Social media has also ushered in a new level of hunger for visuals and visual connection. Before buying anything, consumers like to see it in action, learn about the company, and get a sense for who they’re giving their hard-earned money to. A behind-the-scenes video, an unboxing video, or front-facing video that shows a company founder telling the story of their company — overlaid with the company’s brand, of course — can help potential customers connect with the people behind the product, and compel them to try it out.

How does visual communication help at work?

When it comes to the ingredients that make a high-performing team, organizations and leaders often point to having a strong mission and brand purpose, a clear vision, and workplace perks that consistently engage teams. But unless you’re putting significant effort into communicating those ideas (as well as the practical information about work perks, policies, and expectations), employees won’t feel that impact.

That’s why strong visual communication is so critical in the workplace. One of Canva's own creative leads, Michael Webster, found how essential visual communication was for his own team:

With so many modern teams being more time-poor than ever and spread across locations and platforms, the ability to communicate visually has never been so important. The more easily digestible and visually appealing your message, the more likely it will demand attention, be understood, and retained.

So, in a busy workplace, visual media helps make important-yet-dry information more digestible to employees. It also helps people make meaning from information by giving context and adding a visual anchor.

And there’s no doubt that the digital age has changed the way we work and communicate. In a time where many organizations are working hybrid or remotely and allowing flexibility, the importance of strong communication is essential to effective collaboration and growing a business. To maintain collaboration and morale among teams it’s vital that all employees feel like they’re working towards one united goal. This means making sure everyone is on the same page about company objectives, updates, and initiatives.

When it comes to ensuring that your team is communicating better, the power of design is your secret tool to success. To distribute important information to employees in a way they can easily absorb, understand, and remember, visual communication strategies — like using infographics, photography, videos, timelines, and posters — can help. Whether used in a broader organization or smaller teams, visual strategies foster better communication and collaboration.

We’ll get into the many types of visual media that you can employ to engage your audience, community, or team.

Examples of visual communication

Visual strategies can be found anywhere from your TikTok For You Page to your company Slack channel. Here are some common forms of visual communication, and how you can use them to better convey ideas to the world around you — at work or in your personal projects.

Presentations

Presentations are useful for sharing important news and updates with employees, potential customers, and even friends (presentation parties gained popularity during the pandemic — look it up!).

At work, you might need to hold a meeting to discuss results from the last quarter and set objectives for the future. Using a presentation as a visual aid will make it far more compelling than simply talking through the information. Strong visuals, including photos, graphs, and callouts mean employees are more likely to actually absorb and recall the content.

Visuals make presentations infinitely more engaging — and it doesn’t even have to take that much more time to put together. Canva’s presentation templates let you start from a visually exciting place, so all you have to do is add a few photos and plug in your numbers to the pre-designed graphs and you’re good to go.

Graphs and charts

When you need to make complex information more simple and digestible, there’s nothing better than a well-designed graph. These are often used to convey numerical or categorical information — such as showing company growth or comparing data to a competitor.

Data visualization is a sought-after skill, because managing data and choosing the correct type of graph and scale to best convey the information isn’t always easy. Canva’s data function helps anyone, with or without data visualization experience, generate graphs that are easy to read and pleasing to the eye.

And there’s so many different types of graphs to choose from, such as bar and line graphs or pie charts. If you need to communicate a large array of information, you can even combine a few different graphs into one infographic chart.

Posters

Posters, whether they’re made for online use or to be printed and plastered all over walls and cork boards, can serve a multitude of purposes.

Posters are a powerful visual communication tool: they can help drive ticket sales for concerts or events, they can help spread public health information, and they can be used to spread the word about community groups looking for new members.

At work, hang posters around high-traffic areas in your offices (such as the elevator or kitchen), and use them to get the word out about important news. For example, you might have a new initiative or fundraiser that you want to raise company awareness about. Or, perhaps there are new regulations and health guidelines that need to be conveyed to all employees. Even if you already sent an email about the topic, posters can be helpful in-persona reminders about whatever initiative you’re looking to popularize.

Of course, posters shouldn’t be used as the first line of communication. With so many people working from home, posters on sidewalks, in community centers, and at work are often missed. But that same poster can be used online: just use Canva’s Magic Resize tool and turn it into a social post for any platform.

Timelines

Timelines are an excellent form of visual storytelling and communication. Whether you’re sharing about the history of your city’s development or you’re conveying the story of the founding of your company, or you’re using it to show progress on a major initiative, they are a fantastic way to show the progression of time.

At work, timelines are also a powerful project management tool: They can be used to map out projects in chronological order, complete with deadlines and milestones.

This ensures that everyone is aligned and knows exactly what deliverables are required by who and when. They can also serve as a useful visual reminder of repeatable processes. By keeping them somewhere visible, employees can always reference them when they need to jog their memory. This can go a long way in streamlining workflows and improving employee productivity.

Mind maps/content maps

When in doubt, map it out! There’s no better way to visually organize abstract and non-linear information than with a mind map. They use the concept of radial thinking, where lines and links show the relationship between the central concept and other, related ideas.

Try this mind map (or content map) template for your next brainstorming session.

For this reason, they are extremely helpful for brainstorming ideas or conducting a SWOT analysis (assessing an organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats). Mind maps are also particularly useful for communicating information to employees who are creative, big picture thinkers.

Checklists

Nothing improves efficiency quite like a checklist. At work and in personal life, checklists help maintain order. There are so many kinds of checklists: like grocery lists to be shared with a teenager going off to university, reminders of what needs to get done before a major trip, or to-dos on a major project. They’re designed to eliminate the chance of error — because we can only rely on human memory so much!

Checklists are also a critical part of project management, and can be used to ensure all steps have been completed in a project, or that all elements from various contributors are included before submitting an important document. They can also be used to keep track of office inventory like stationery supplies.

Try adding your brand to this Green Minimalist Travel Checklist.

Videos

Compared to links, text, or still images, videos are a more powerful tool for generating engagement and conversions from users. Video is simply a lot more exciting and enticing: Colors and movement pique our interest, and the use of several layers of information and visuals of various sizes stimulates different sections of our brain, all of which help your audience stay focused on your message and would like to learn more.

That’s why video platforms like TikTok have taken off in such a big way, why documentaries are such a good way to tell a complete and compelling story, and why it’s so easy to get into a YouTube spiral.

At work, creating on-brand videos is a great approach to communicate complex information in a way that's easy to comprehend. For example, a video explaining your new workplace protocols can help humanize the people who spent months trying to come up with a return to office plan, and demo videos are an amazing selling tool because consumers love to see a product in action before committing to a purchase.

Some companies may also want to try out adding animation: it’s a great way to highlight the most important messages in your videos.

Step-by-step guides

Like checklists and timelines, step-by-step visuals are valuable for disseminating practical information, increasing efficiency, and reducing human error. They mean that product users or employees don’t have to rely on their memory in order to complete complex tasks — they can simply reference the instructions.

There’s a reason why IKEA’s instruction manuals are so well-known: they include cheery illustrations on how to assemble every piece of furniture in their catalog.

Step-by-step guides are also extremely useful for onboarding new employees. It takes guesswork out of new procedures until they gain more confidence and it becomes second nature.

Visual communication tools

There are a number of ways that marketers, content creators, and designers can create multimedia content, and most veterans in the field have their preferred visual communication tools. These can include photo editors, traditional graphic design software, or flexible, cloud-based design collaboration platforms like Canva.

Visual communication tools include:

  • Photo and video editors
  • Graphic design platforms
  • Social media platforms
  • Video messaging and live video
  • Animation, stop-motion, and other forms of movement
  • Paint, chalk, and visual art mediums
  • Branded company merchandise
  • A website or company building
  • Any other visual media or elements that impact your business and audience perception of your organization

How to incorporate visual communication on your team

Visual communication isn’t just something used by management or your design team. It’s one of the most valuable skills of the modern workplace and something that leaders and managers should invest in for employees of all levels.

By encouraging employees to utilize visual graphic design strategies, you can set them up for success. It helps improve both their efficiency as individuals and their ability to work cohesively within teams.

For his own team, Michael's team have incorporated visual communication into everything they do:

My team has been using visual communication to enhance even the most mundane content. Even our project platform has colorful graphics for each brief we are working on. Visual communication can help teams communicate more effectively in many ways we are still discovering.

Here’s how you can facilitate visual communication within teams.

Use tools that everyone can use

Complicated software that requires app downloads or a steep learning curve can discourage every team member from leveraging visual mediums and channels. Use collaborative, intuitive platforms like Canva’s Visual Worksuite that enable teams to learn one set of tools and design any type of project they can imagine. All while staying on-brand.

Create team templates

Unless they happen to be graphic designers, your employees likely don’t have the time to create visual assets from scratch (and on-brand, with the current brand guidelines) every time. Whether it’s a presentation for a meeting or a checklist for their workspace, it’s important that they can quickly plug in their information and move on.

Templates make visual communication quick and easy. With Canva Pro and Canva for Teams, you can set up brand templates and share them within specific teams. This means that everyone can access the relevant templates for their department, and customize them for use over and over again.

Stay organized with folders

Communication and clarity go hand in hand. By organizing your visual templates into folders, you can ensure everyone in the team has exactly what they need when they need it. For example, you might set up a folder for quarterly meetings, another for creative projects, and so forth. Having these systems in place can help eliminate any confusion or conflict later down the track.

How to create on-brand visuals for internal and external communication

First impressions count, and visual communication plays a huge role in shaping your company’s first impression. From the graphics you use in your presentation to the flyers you hand out at a conference, those little visual touches can subconsciously influence perception — they’re the building blocks of your brand.

Whether it’s potential new hires or clients visiting for a meeting, you want to leave a positive and lasting impression on anyone in contact with your organization.

Here are some ways to ensure you’re sending the right message with your visual communication.

Consider your brand personality

If your organization was a person, what would their personality be like? Are they warm and family-oriented? Or, perhaps they value creativity and freedom, over sticking to any set rules? Think about the overall values of the organization as well as your existing visual branding. These should set the tone of your visual communication assets.

For example, if your organization is quite corporate and serious, it may seem quite incongruent to start using fun and playful graphics in posters and presentations. Unless, of course, you are strategically attempting to change how your organization is perceived — the important thing here is that you employ visuals in an intentional way.

Make sure you use a tool with design approval flows built right in to save your team time and ensure every asset is on brand, every time.

Employ visual storytelling strategies

Visual storytelling takes visual communication to the next level: it uses various different visual elements, whether it’s video clips, illustrations, animations, graphs, and photos, to intentionally take the viewer on a journey.

Whether it’s telling the story of your company’s founding, or sharing a presentation about how an employee has grown and improved throughout their time at your company, building your visual communications along the line of a strong narrative can help appeal to emotions and for your message to stick with the viewer for longer.

Keep your communication visually consistent

Consistency is key when it comes to visual communication. Otherwise, you may end up sending mixed messages, which can muddy your brand reputation. Plus, when your brand is visually consistent, it tends to make your company come across more credible, trustworthy, and professional. Where possible, use the same colors, fonts in your internal communication as you do in your external branding. Adding a logo in the corner can help make things feel more official.

The best way to ensure consistency across all your visual communications — both internal and external — is to build a brand kit. Brand kits let you program your company fonts, colors, logos, and imagery right into Canva so everyone from your company has access to all your brand parameters while they’re designing. You can also create brand templates that let your employees start from a brand-ready template when creating anything from social posts to pitch presentations.

Learn more about how to build a brand kit here:

Think about visual hierarchy

Visual hierarchy is one of the most important considerations of visual communication. This is what gives all those shapes and lines in your graphics context! Essentially, it means arranging and grouping elements in accordance with their importance.

When you’re designing visual assets, think about the most important elements you want to draw attention to. For example, if you’re designing a mind map, you may have one, large phrase in the middle, with all of the concepts and ideas radiating outwards from it. Taking this into consideration helps ensure employees will take in the most important information first.

Visual storytelling and communication helps you connect with your audience

No matter if you’re just trying to grow your social media followers or if you’re looking to communicate with your whole team at work, visual communication strategies will set you up for success. They’ll keep your main point at the front of your audience’s minds, and you’ll connect with them on a deeper level.

Learn more about how Canva can help you and your team with visual communication tools today.

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