The Power of Imagery and Shared Meaning

Image source: Adobe Stock.
The Power of Imagery and Shared Meaning
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Special thanks to Joseph Press for his contributions to this article.

Imagery has the power to inspire, critique, motivate, and change perceptions. It can be a powerful external marketing tool that elicits consumer loyalty and brand awareness and can also be an effective internal tool that motivates company employees in a new vision or shared cause.

At Adobe Stock, we’re constantly thinking about and collaborating with partners on new ways to engage people with visual content through our work with creators and customers alike from across the globe. We do this through our annual Visual Trends report, our wide range of asset types, and our search features powered by Adobe Sensei. We’re reimagining how visual content can be created and used. We’re seeking a greater understanding of how visuals can connect us through shared meaning (and vice versa).

To think deeper into visual shared meaning, we joined up with IDeaLs earlier this year. Founded by the Center for Creative Leadership and Politecnico di Milano, IDeaLs is a platform of 11 leading scholars, nine pioneering organizations, and 18 thought leaders that research how images could provoke personal, organizational, and societal transformation. They leverage digital innovation and the power of imagery to develop leadership with purpose while exploring how to encourage people to converge on new directions by engaging in the collective making of shared images.

Image source: Adobe Stock.

We joined IDeaLs at the adidas headquarters in Germany, along with global creative leaders from PhilipsNestle, Sintetica & Sorgenia. We learned about their findings when working with these groups on shared visual meaning, and we worked together finding shared meaning across organizations using the Adobe Stock Premium Collection as a brainstorming tool.

We’re inspired by the work iDeaLs is doing in the space, and, if designing visuals for shared meaning piques your interest too, read on for a more in-depth look by IDeaLs Global Research Platform, Scientific Lead and Co-Founder Joseph Press.

The Power of Designing Images: Perspectives on Representation in the Search for Shared Meaning

By Joseph Press, Global Innovator at CCL and IDeaLs, Scientific lead and Co-founder

Introducing IDeaLs

Given the abundance of images created daily, what if co-creating visual representations could cultivate the shared meaning for systemic change? Innovation and Design as Leadership (IDeaLs) seeks to better understand this potential — critical for solving humanity`s challenges. Our research examines innovation as meaning, that people are motivated by a personal purpose rather than merely generating ideas. When people visualize the purpose of their innovation intentions with images, they willingly co-create shared representations. By using design as a means of engagement, we create shared visual representations which reveal how we understand the world. These mental constructs encourage a common commitment to act, moving from individuals leaders to leadership as a community. If we can exploit the power of images to mobilize collective action, perhaps we can open new ways to engage people for changing existing situations into preferred ones.

We are spirits of the visual world

The total number of photos taken over the last five years has increased from 660 billion in 2013 to an estimated 1.2 trillion in 2018. This number continues to increase daily and doesn’t even include other kinds of visual representations, either existing (video) or emerging (AR/VR). In today’s digitally enabled world — a device in hand with a plethora of creative tools and limitless storage space in the cloud — no significant barriers exist for people to express what’s important for them. Whether it be a relationship, an emotional moment, or simply beauty, clearly people are engaged when making images. For years marketers have known of the potential of images to evoke emotion and influence behavior. The difference today is that the joy of creating has become democratized. If people are engaged when they capture, share, and react to images, what opportunities do these behaviors open for those who believe in the power of images to inspire, mobilize, and even transform? 

Image source: Adobe Stock.

Image-making as a search for (shared) meaning

To explore these questions, let’s examine the foundational pillars of human experience — meaning, cognition, and community — and the role representation plays in each. Meaning is where it all begins. Psychologist Victor Frankl expounded on how meaning is a basic motivator of who we are as humans. Meaning gives us sense in life, a purpose to empower us to overcome challenges. Images have always played an important role in fulfilling this need. For example, an image of a caregiver and child evokes the very meaningful concepts of family, parenting, and even life. An image of a setting sun over a beach evokes a sense of tranquility, of awe, and the wonder of nature. Victor expounds on the experience of meaning as a trigger to become “aware of what can be done about a given situation… and creatively changing the situation.” Meaning, therefore, holds the potential for self-realization in the proactive shaping of experience by our cognitive abilities. This perspective provides insight into the exponential growth of image-making — people are not just representing experience, but exercising their cognitive power to creatively identify, capture, and share what is important for themselves. It is an act of self-actualization.

Image source: Adobe Stock.

With the multitude of external representations of our internal mental constructs available today, as exemplified by trillions of online images, the possibilities of meaning are also limitless. However, despite the constant challenge of communicating between incommensurate personal worlds, we humans are somehow able to fulfill our basic need for interacting with others. In fact, we spend the majority of our time seeking shared understanding. In the image world, the best example of this social activity of making shared meaning is the Visual Trend forecast. At the beginning of each new year, photography pundits share how the visual world continues to expand and evolve. Creatives need the insights of visual experts to decode the styles that will best engage image consumers. While there may be magic in the algorithms, the miracle is how communities converge on visual cues amid a multitude of representations.

With these phenomena in the collective mind, IDeaLs researched how we can engage people to co-create meaning and enable collective action. Let’s share a story to illustrate the power of image-making in the search for shared meaning.

Designing images for change – the global ships case study

Leadership at Global Ships had a clear direction and a high level of alignment on how to maintain their status as the world leader in transporting chemical materials on ships globally. However, the next challenge was how to engage and secure the commitment of thousands of people to commit to the new direction and contribute to making it an integral part of daily business life at Global Ships. The key stakeholder group — captains and sailors — were very difficult to engage because they are disconnected from daily communication. Using a traditional change management approach to achieve engagement, we would have gathered the stakeholders in a large event, create a burning platform, communicate the direction, tell everyone that they need to change, determine what was understood, then secure commitments for action. Instead, the team decided to try a novel approach that would enable continuing the co-creation and expansion of the new direction using images as a catalyst for engagement.

In a workshop held in February of 2018, the research team asked 67 participants to select an image describing “the new direction in your own words,” first among a closed set of images, then in the web repository. The overall results indicated the overall mood was particularly positive. The project was perceived as an innovative way that aims to let the organization change to face their business challenges. The team now had a clear baseline to begin the engagement experience, with the objective to move the mood into brighter and more inspirational images. Following the sharing and conversation, participants engaged in a mini design experience by reflecting on the image and defining three keywords. With this exercise to move them into a more personal frame of mind, asking people to dig, think, search (images), and talk about their inner motivations, they had the chance to reflect on why the company is important to them. Then participants had the chance to select an image to represent the new direction and the chance to (re-) describe it with their own words. Within two hours, the workshop engaged 67 participants in 10 exercises, with four requests for images, 154 images were submitted with an average of 49 participants per exercise, yielding over 500 words and phrases. That’s engagement!

These experiences and preliminary insights seem to demonstrate the power of co-designing images to engage people in the shared direction of the transformation project. Participants indeed innovated and started to change. The intervention indicated that it cultivated a community of collaborators to co-create a shared direction, empowering leadership to align and commit to engaging other stakeholders in the growing community for making the new direction a reality.

Image source: Adobe Stock.

IDeaLs: Representations for further research

Our initial research findings indicate that design-like activities of images engage people by making meaning visible. With leadership, we can engage others by making shared meaning. With innovation intention, images can engage people by making new shared meaning. Using images for engagement opens a new perspective transformation. In today`s context, where digital acceleration necessitates changing while converging into a shared direction because meaning needs to be created with others, this approach could guide a new wave of leadership and change. When using images in a digital environment, the visibility of interactions in the form of words, images, and networks can more easily bring design objects at the center of the conversation. We have seen that people are more engaged with a sense of purpose, or raison d’être, rather than mere teleological tasks, top-down instructions, or a bottom-up movement. Leaders should engage in the collective act of forging a new shared direction, as meaning-making in a community of practice. We see that leaders who set a direction and enable making meaning in a shared space, on a shared image, can engage people to make innovation happen.

Image source: Adobe Stock.

In 2020 and beyond, IDeaLs intends to perform further action research, enlarge our sample, and provide further empirical quantitative evidence of the power of images as catalysts for personal, organizational, and societal transformation.

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