Tag Archives: picture superiority effect

Design Smarter: Find the best blend for text and image

The picture superiority effect occurs when you combine visuals and text together to increase audience retention of your message. The picture superiority effect is what allows you to create one of Nancy Duarte’s STAR Moments, evocative visuals. Not every visual needs to utilize text; Lisa Kristine in her amazing TED talk uses no text on her images; using text over her haunting and beautiful images of human slaves would have diminished their impact. However, text, especially in stand-alone presentations can help enhance a slide, communicate a more impacting message, and add to that cohesive look we want from original slide decks.

There are a few ways to blend text and image together on a slide. What you do depends on what you want to accomplish, the nature of your image and the amount of text on your slide. Your choice depends on what your main focus is in displaying the word with the image. Are they equally important? Is one more important than another? Here are a few variations to get you started.Below, I’ll cover a few of the more common combinations I see from designers and students. There are several ways to combine a bit of text with an image. Here are a few variations to get you started.

One idea, one image with empty space

One way to combine an image with an idea is to look for an image that has empty space. Often, images that employ the rule of thirds  include enough space for text. You know there’s enough space when there is little to no overlap between image and text. In this example, the original image by Flickr user Photoco. was licensed for commercial use with adaptations or remixes allowed. I was able to fill the slide with the image (which was large enough to display without pixelation) and use the empty space to the left of the figure to add my idea.

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One idea, one image without empty space

In other situations, you might have a fairly busy image you’d like to use on your slide; there is no one specific detail in the image that is more important than another that must be visible as in the example above. So, you can use a few strategies to blend image and text. The first is to adjust the brightness and exposure of the original image and place one large word over the picture (fig. a); note that this works well with a typeface like Intro, but might not work well with a typeface that has a thinner weight. In the first two examples (fig. a, fig. b), I adjusted the brightness and exposure of the image. In the next, I added a shadow to differentiate the text from the background (fig. c). In the final example, I adjusted the opacity of the text (this sometimes improves readability) (fig. d). Notice that the color changes depending on the option.

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After tweaking colors, shadows, and image settings, I chose this variation:

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Now, let’s assume you want to use a font with a thinner weight, like District Pro. Notice that without a bit of help, the text here is difficult to read. This is where a supporting shape comes in. Placing a shape behind the text (as long as it doesn’t make an important element on the image impossible to see) can be an option when blending text and image. In the example below, I’ve used several shapes to emphasize the text.

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One quote, one image with empty space

So, what if you want to place a quote or a lengthier idea (keep words to a minimum on a slide; 5-8 words is enough) on a slide with an image? Your first and best bet is to seek out an image with empty space, like the one above. Using an image with empty space and a readable typeface will help you maximize the impact of the quote by providing simple, clean visual support.

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One quote, one image without empty space a quote

At times, it’s possible to place a quote on a slide that has is busier–again, as long as the quote does not interfere with important parts of the image. However, this is the option I would advise the least. Placing a quote on a slide with a busy image will increase your chances of creating noise and it could minimize signal. In the case below, the quote on the slide combined with the image creates noise.


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The solution here is to rearrange the image to fit the frame (fig. e), find an image that allows the blend to happen naturally (fig. f), or allow the quote to stand alone.

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These are only a few of the many ways to blend text and image together.Whatever your choice, it’s important to consider these three best practices when pairing text and image:

1. The picture superiority effect is maximized when text and image are blended.

2. Create the most seamless blend possible.

3. Keep signal high and noise low.

What are your go to strategies for maximizing the picture superiority effect?


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September’s 20-minute slide slam

Each month Alex teaches, she challenges students to take a bulleted slide and revise it to a set of bullet-free visual stories. I previously blogged about that here.

This month, I decided to try my hand at a few new images/strategies. In working with one student, who wanted to display the idea, “Cats are the most popular pet” by showing an image of the earth and a pie chart, I came up with the idea of making the earth itself the pie chart. Since Cody Higgins had already chosen to create this for his slide slam, I decided to go with a different option. However, just as an exercise, I chose to recreate Cody’s excellent slide using the percentage of households that own cats and households that own dogs.

The students also work on creating grids; the last slide, just for fun is a ninja grid.


Images: Anna Fischer, thedalogs, Angelo González, squacco

Try a 10 or 20 minute tweak challenge to brush up or practice those design skills. Design is a skill that must be cultivated daily. Grow your design!


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Does visual really matter?

The simple answer is yes, of course it does. This may seem like a given in an age where children learn how to draw on an iPad and the basics of text speak before they learn (if they ever do) that it’s Shakespeare who claims that “all the world’s a stage.” However, in the business and education worlds, verbal and textual communication is still king!

Since 1987, PowerPoint users everywhere have followed a standard operating procedure–open the program/application, choose a template, insert notes, speaking points, a transcript, or an entire report’s worth of information on text-driven, bulleted slides. This is what Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds describe as a slideument–a document (something to be handed out and distributed). On the presentation axis Nancy describes below, the exact opposite of this is a cinematic, story-driven (Duarte’s phrasing) presentation. Check out what else these two gurus have to say about how the slideument relates to the scientific and technical world.

So, even a scientific presentation could benefit from at the very least the splitting of information over more slides. Well, one way to do this and ensure that this material resonates with an audience is to not only focus on one idea per slide but also pair that idea with a strong visual. Thus, you apply the picture superiority effect.

What is the picture superiority effect? I posted this video last week, but, who couldn’t use a refresher–in 30 seconds, here is the picture superiority effect as it relates to cognition and our brain function.

In essence, we retain information when it is visually displayed. But, why is it that pictures have this incredible impact on our minds? What is it about images that makes our brains work so well (at least in terms of information retention, which is definitely one goal of a presentation)?

Let’s check out what John Medina, my superteacher superhero, has to say about his 10th Brain Rule:

So, we learn two important lessons related to presenting from studying this important Brain Rule:

1. Vision Trumps All Other Senses.

Vision is the primary sense of the majority of your audience. Vision also takes up some major real estate in our brains, making it one of the most powerfully complicated senses. For Medina, most things come down to survival and procreation. Vision was how we observed danger in our environments; it was also how we determined the characteristics that made a suitable genetic male. Tor Norretranders mapped the processing speed of the human senses and found that sight has the processing speed of a computer network, as compared to taste, which has the processing speed of a pocket calculator (Source).

2. Even Text is Visual.

Our brains translate the squiggles, lines, and shapes that make up letters, connect them to the sound we were taught matches that pictorial representation, and then determine how that pictograph in relationship to other pictographs creates a sound, and a word. But, according to Medina, this process takes more time and effort. We can, however, process a whole image much more quickly than pictorial representations of sounds. Medina’s advice? Business professionals and teachers should “burn their current PowerPoint presentations” and ditch the inefficiency of oral and text-based information (I fear this opens a giant can of worms–I am not saying text is useless–merely that as a means of conveying information in a set time and context that invites distraction and noise, it is best to amplify your signal through the visual medium). So, to harness the true power of the visual medium and shoot retention through the roof, we have to pair one impacting image with one clear and concise idea.

Image: Stacie Stacie Stacie, Image: Julian Santacruz

Choosing an image and pairing it to an idea is a challenge that takes conceptual or metaphorical thinking, which is a separate, post-worthy topic. For the time being, let’s take a look at how PETA uses the picture superiority effect to drive home their point about fur for fashion.  Consider the text only visuals as they compare to those applying the picture superiority effect–do these slogans carry more cognitive retention power when paired with a recognizable, moving, or arousing image?  Note, the Shirley Manson ad is not for the weak of stomach–you have been forewarned!

Consider how much more lasting this image of NBA star Chris “Birdman” Anderson is. We tend to equate fur with status, but Chris is comfortable in his own tattooed skin.

Visceral images that juxtapose beauty and delicateness against brutal reality hit us at our emotional core. Manson’s porcelain skin creates amazing contrast to the horror and cruelty she displays for the viewer.

This is one of PETA’s most popular campaigns. Gone are the days of splashing red paint on fur coats. Now, PETA appeals to one of our most basic visual drives, the drive towards attractiveness while also challenging the viewer to embrace the vulnerability of nakedness.

So, to fully harness audience retention in your next presentation, ditch the pre-made template (or even if you don’t!), and focus on visually-driven slides that pair one image, with one idea. Remember, visual is king!

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Infographic of the Day: Picture Superiority Effect

Why is it that we retain more information when we see something rather than when we simply hear it? The phenomenon is known as the picture superiority effect. Pairing images with text brings retention up from 10% to 65%. Check out this short infographic for a simple, yet thorough visual explanation of how this phenomenon works:

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Tweak Your Slides: the Workshop

I am off to conduct my favorite workshop, Tweak Your Slides for Educators. In an effort to continuously improve my own design, I’ve updated the presentation, added a few more examples, and revised my ten principles a bit.

I noticed today that this presentation has been viewed over 900 times. Neato! I am super glad the ideas that sparked my design obsession are helping others.

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