Channel, Slideshow

How Images Affect the Impact of Design

Up until the last couple of years, adding images to the mix was a luxury on most of the design projects that I worked on. When designing statements, notices, policies and other mandated communications there was typically a logo, maybe an icon or two and if you were really lucky the opportunity to put together some sort of instructional infographic.

Source: MySecuritySign

Source: MySecuritySign

With the installed base of high volume, production inkjet printers growing rapidly in the US and Europe, the ability to add full color images to high-volume customer communications is no longer a hardware limitation. Now, we creatives need to think about effectiveness, appropriateness and, of course, cost is still a factor. In pursuing research on the impact of images on customer behavior, I came across some interesting sources. First,  “The Effects of eye images on everyday cooperative behavior: a field experiment,” by Max Ernest-Jonesa, Daniel Nettleb and Melissa Bateson studied littering behavior in a university cafeteria. From the study:

“We found a halving of the odds of littering in the presence of posters featuring eyes, as compared to posters featuring flowers. This effect was independent of whether the poster exhorted litter clearing or contained an unrelated message, suggesting that the effect of eye images cannot be explained by their drawing attention to verbal instructions. There was some support for the hypothesis that eye images had a larger effect when there were few people in the café than when the café was busy. Our results confirm that the effects of subtle cues of observation on cooperative behavior can be large in certain real-world contexts.”

Second was “Images of Eyes Enhance Investments in a Real-Life Public Good,” by Damien Francey and Ralph Bergmüller which also examined littering behavior, this time at a bus stop to track whether individuals would deposit more items into the appropriate trash bin in the presence of images of eyes.

“The treatment had no effect on the likelihood that individuals present at the bus stop would remove garbage. However, those individuals that engaged in garbage clearing, and were thus likely affected by the treatment, invested more time to do so in the presence of eyes. Images of eyes had a direct effect on behaviour, rather than merely enhancing attention towards a symbolic sign requesting removal of garbage.”

And finally, “Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting” by Melissa Bateson, Daniel Nettle and Gilbert Roberts examined the effect of an image of a pair of eyes on contributions to an “honor bar” used to collect money for drinks in a university coffee room. According to the study:

“People paid nearly three times as much for their drinks when eyes were displayed rather than a control image. This finding provides the first evidence from a naturalistic setting of the importance of cues of being watched, and hence reputational concerns, on human cooperative behaviour.”

So, the eyes have it! Images can impact behavior. Now that we have the opportunity to add more imagery to customer communications – let’s not waste it on pretty pictures with no impact. Think carefully about the reaction you want to cause and invest in A/B Testing of design options to determine which images have the desired effect. It’s a great time to be in statement marketing and this research certainly opened my eyes to new possibilities.

Elizabeth Gooding

Elizabeth Gooding is the editor of the Insight Forums blog and president of Gooding Communications Group

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About Elizabeth Gooding

Elizabeth Gooding is the editor of the Insight Forums blog and president of Gooding Communications Group


  1. Fascinating! If an image of eyes can positively impact certain behavior in social situations we have to think about what would work when people are making decisions out of the public eye. For example I am not convinced that an image of a beach and palm trees would increase the likelihood of people saving more for retirement. First we have to understand why the eyes had an impact. Is it a fear-based response (being punished – by exclusion or otherwise – for not abiding by the rules of society)? Imagery that appeals to fear to generate behavioral change has been used effectively in anti-smoking campaigns. However this is about changing a behavior that is (now) frowned upon by society. What triggers work to influence a behavior that society does not “judge” (for example personal choices concerning saving and spending)?

  2. Josiah Fisk

    Excellent summary of these interesting studies. It seems possible to me that what the eyes are triggering is not so much fear as a greater sensitivity to the voice of the conscience — the “eyes” with which we watch ourselves. I’m led to this thought by the fact that the signs are basically abstract and suggestive, as opposed to reading as actual warnings of surveillance.

    Sophie, I completely agree that the beach image is not a retirement-saving motivator — however many millions of times we have all seen it used as if it were. However, I can imagine that if you tried something like a series of images showing 3 or 4 different beaches, ranging from the classic Caribbean paradise on down to a trash-strewn stretch of mud, and then added some non-threatening but wake-up-call-inducing copy asking people what kind of beach they want to retire to, you might be able to move the needle. And as Elizabeth suggests, split-run testing would let you find out whether an approach like that (or any other) actually works or not.

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