Visual Literacy

What's the level of visual literacy in your company?  Chances are it's not very high.

I define visual literacy as the ability to discern whether your products, services, marcom materials, or anything else you produce, are visually communicating the message you want your consumers to receive.  This skill is not taught in most schools, and even some design schools fall short in this area.  All too often, the quality of design is determined by how much the design is "liked" by internal stakeholders, or designers.  Even many consumer evaluation methods rely on asking consumers which option they like the best.

Consumers don't buy products because they like the way they look.  For example, if it's important to your consumers that your product be rugged, it should look and feel rugged.  All the written specifications in the world that say your product is rugged will not compensate if your product does not look and feel rugged.  Consumers may like the way the less rugged product looks better than the alternatives, but they will still buy the one that looks more rugged if that's what's important.

Visual literacy is different from being able to understand what consumers want.  It's also different from being able to design things that are aesthetically pleasing.  It's the ability to translate what consumers want into the look and feel of the offering, conveying a consistent message across all visual elements.  This skill is fairly intangible, and as such is usually overlooked.  This is a mistake, as intangible attributes are far less likely to be copied by the competition than technical attributes.

Think about how design decisions are made in your company.  Are products designed functionally, with design "painted" on after the fact?  Are the marcom materials designed separately from the products, with different communication goals?  Are your products evaluated based on preference, or based on how well they look like they will do what they are intended to do?  Are designers evaluated based on hand skill and the ability to create designs the management team likes, or on their ability to communicate the benefits that consumers will buy?

Visual literacy is a strong source of competitive advantage.  Whether it's being used to your advantage or to your competitor's advantage is up to you.