Disappointing, frustrating, surprising, uninspiring, exciting, amazing… Depending on how you experienced the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which team you were supporting or how much of a die-hard fan you consider yourself to be, this is how you would probably describe the games that ended on July 13. Without delving into the details of which team should have won or whose performance was worth watching, the 2014 FIFA World Cup was full of colors, images, impressions, illustrations and graphics.
The visual presentation of information — or visual communication, as we like to call it in professional jargon — has become omnipresent in our daily lives, more so during the World Cup fever. From posters to pictures, fans’ facial expressions, sponsors’ advertisements, interactive timelines and infographics of players as well as Jennifer Lopez’s performance at the opening ceremony and that of Shakira in the closing one, the FIFA World Cup 2014 could certainly be summarized visually.
However, this load of visual representation of the matches ultimately compels us to question its limitations in general: Can visual communication replace a good narrative? Does it come at the expense of content? In what instances does the imagery become too much or too little?
“Without image, thinking is impossible” – Aristotle
In truth, the power of visual communication has been trending in recent years, whereby advocates believe that it has altered the way we communicate, experience things and learn. This is especially true in the digital age where Pinterest sells dreams, Instagram makes memories and Tumblr creates stories.
Research by New York University’s Jerome Bruner shows that we remember about 80 percent of the things we see, compared to 20 percent of what we read. Given people’s short attention span, compelling images have become critical to putting together a story, convincing people and standing out.
The most memorable images of the 2014 World Cup are definitely those of the Brazilian fans watching in despair as their team lost against the Germans in the semifinals: tearful eyes, sad faces, shocked reactions, etc. Many say that these facial expressions stirred emotions and feelings of compassion, sympathy and solidarity among the Brazilians, replacing sentiments of anger or resentment.
Visual aids also simplify information, rendering things easier to understand and grasp. Infographics with the names of players or interactive tables with the lineup of the games flooded our timelines on the morning of each game: who was playing, in which position, which strategy was going to be adopted, etc. Let’s face it, reading pages and pages of analysis would have been tedious, when a good design and drawing makes it easier to explain and much more comprehensible.
In addition to arousing emotions and simplifying complexity, visual presentation can serve to enhance stories. In fact, no one would have believed that Uruguayan player Luis Suarez actually bit Italian Giorgio Chiellini during a World Cup game if not for a video of the incident. This specific moment was captured and turned into an animated GIF that went viral, compelling us to watch it over and over again in a quick and easy to load format, ultimately proving that visual presentation is critical to make an impact. Between reading about an incident and having the chance to watch it, the latter seems to be the winning option.
Finally and most importantly, visual communication is about illustrating concepts and allowing audiences to make a direct link in their minds, just like the official brand identity for the World Cup 2014, which projects both the values of FIFA, be they unity, integrity, authenticity and performance, as well as the specificities of the host nation.
“A picture is worth a thousand words” … but never tells the whole story
Despite the undeniable power of images, it is critical to remember that successful visual communication is all about the right purpose, the right way and the right content, whereby the success or failure of any communication hinges on knowing how and when to resort to it.
Too much is too little
The World Cup is one of the most anticipated events that football fans await every four years; one that creates hype among teams, sponsors and the media who bombard us with visuals prior to, during and after the games. This year, the World Cup certainly did not suffer from a shortage of visual communication. This makes us wonder whether this excitement was overdone, if the visuals from this milestone deserved to trump major regional events, such as the war in Gaza, and if we should actually expect the media to provide us with a more balanced selection of visual information.
More generally, excessive visual representation can take away from the significance and appeal of each image, ultimately reducing its impact so we no longer examine the repetitive visuals that are overcrowding social media sites and newsfeeds — barely glancing at them, deeming them mere ornament to the overall design.
Looking at the bigger picture
In addition, images taken out of context can disengage viewers from the reality of things. The host city Rio de Janeiro is not only about pristine beaches, state-of-the-art stadiums, all-day carnivals, pretty women and handsome men. The city is also about poverty, crime and social inequality. However, when we are bombarded with images depicting only one aspect of the city, we tend to overlook reality. In fact, during the games, many local NGOs were trying to spread images showcasing the contrast between the wealthy and the deprived neighborhoods, the opulence of the games and poverty of the people, the high rises and the shantytowns. This example is one of many that illustrates how focusing on one aspect or one side of a story is very common, and how making the effort to look at the bigger picture remains nonetheless fundamental to having a broader understanding of the reality of things.
When pictures alone are not enough
Relying solely on visual communication can sometimes be deceiving or even misleading. Case in point: the story of the “most beautiful World Cup supporter,” i.e. the Belgian fan who landed a short-lived beauty contract with L’Oréal after being spotted among a crowd of fans during a game. L’Oréal later called off the contract as pictures of her during a hunting trip emerged, arguing that these were not in line with the principles of the company. To sum up, the original picture didn’t tell the whole story.
In truth, visuals are not sufficient to project the right image and convey an accurate representation of reality: No matter the extent to which illustrations have become predominant and indispensable in storytelling, especially in our digital age, gripping content remains essential when communicating. As a matter of fact, content should be regarded as more than text, whereby authentic, customized and quality information will speak to audiences, inspire them and shape their perspective of things.
Having established that content remains vital for a captivating narrative, we would expect to find the right balance of images and words, all the while ensuring that visuals go beyond words and provide an added value to the text. When all the newspapers feature the same headlines accompanied by the same pictures, what matters to the reader is no longer the image but rather the analysis.
And so, two months later, the legacy of the German team goes beyond winning the FIFA World Cup 2014. The two most memorable communication moments of these games carry the German stamp and strike the right desired balance between visuals and words: a picture, the celebratory selfie of the winning team featuring Chancellor Angela Merkel and a message, their Facebook post supporting the Brazilian team following their loss.