What is visual language?
Visual language is a branding communication system consisting of images, icons, symbols, colors and other aesthetic characteristics. These visual elements form part of a brand’s visual identity, but they are not the same thing.
Visual identity is a collection of visual elements that define a brand’s look, style and personality. A strategic and cohesive aesthetic can make a brand, its products, and its marketing campaigns instantly recognizable to users.
Visual language, on the other hand, deals with symbols and patterns that a brand uses to communicate with users. The elements in a visual brand language may convey meaning all on their own, like the logo symbol. Other elements improve usability, like the colors and shapes chosen for website call-to-action buttons.
How does visual language work?
Visual language works by clearly defining the meaning and role of a brand’s visual elements to create a consistent mode of communication that users can understand. Every visual that brands use has a specific meaning (or, on occasion, multiple meanings).
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How does semiotics play into visual languages?
In web design and marketing, signs can improve a visual language’s usability. Semiotics is the study of signs and how we use them to communicate in a clear and logical manner. There are different types of signs, according to philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce:
An icon looks like the object it represents. For instance, the shopping cart icon in the header resembles a physical shopping cart.
An index is a graphic that represents a concept. For example, if someone makes an error when filling out a form, a red triangle with an exclamation point will appear beside it.
A symbol is usually an abstract design that represents an object, concept or action. A good example of this is the three parallel lines used for the hamburger menu on websites.
The benefits of creating a visual language
Brands create their own visual language for the following benefits:
Stronger brand identity. By creating a well-defined and documented visual language, brands have a rulebook to follow. Consistent implementation of a visual language will reinforce brand identity, making it easier to recognize and more memorable especially as users encounter it over time.
Enhanced user experience. Clear and consistent communication sustains not just good personal relationships, but professional ones as well. By creating a visual language supported by user research, a brand’s designs will more effectively “speak” to a target audience.
Better conversion rates. A brand will design their visual language elements for clarity and ease-of-use. As such, a thoughtful visual language can provide users with more comfort and support as they engage with your brand. This frictionless experience will help them easily accomplish their goals and, in turn, increase your conversion rate.
How to develop a visual language
A brand can develop their own effective visual language in five steps:
01. Define the brand
A brand must have a clear understanding of itself to imbue their visual and design elements with meaning. To do this, they must answer the following:
What does the brand do?
Who does it serve?
What are the driving principles or philosophies behind the brand?
How would you sum up the personality of the brand?
Any misalignment between the written and visual language, or even just between the brand strategy and its marketing, can lead to distrust and confusion in its users.
02. Conduct market research
A brand should conduct market and user research to unlock these benefits:
To see how target users perceive similar brands
To get a sense for users’ aesthetic preferences
To see visual language and brand identity examples from direct competition as well as market leaders.
03. Choose the elements that will go in the visual language
A visual language’s elements act as its vocabulary. A brand should write down a list of the various elements to use in its designs. This includes everything from a website to social media channels, and product packaging to business cards.
Elements should include:
Shadows and light
Components (e.g. buttons, fields, etc.)
Some of these elements won’t be relevant for all brands. For the ones that are, a brand should hash out what they intend to do for each, making sure they align with your brand identity.
04. Design a logo
Once a brand has finalized their visual language, they can create a logo for their business. A brand can draw on the following visual elements to piece it together:
The logo acts as a critical component of a brand’s identity as it’s ever-present on the website and serves as a brand’s visual representative wherever it goes.
05. Document it all in a style guide
With a completed logo, brands can document and create a dictionary for their visual language.
Brands can do this in two ways:
First, to create a brand style guide consisting of visual language elements and the rules that brand employees and contractors will follow when implementing them.
Brands can also create a design system, or an advanced documentation system used when building a website or app that has many involved team members. In addition to documenting the visual language, a design system will also include:
Brand design principles
Design process and tools
As a brand evolves over time, this centralized document can be updated to encompass all visual language changes.
FAQ (Frequently asked questions)
What the main types of visual language?
The three main types of visual communication include verbal, nonverbal and body language. Visual language could be considered a form of nonverbal communication which relies on images and media to communicate an idea or story. In terms of types of visual language, pictograms and ideograms are considered the main ones.
What are the fundamental elements of visual language?
Composition, scale, space, line, texture, pattern, color, form, tone, shape are some of the most important elements of visual language.