According to an article I recently read on Huffington Post, “The Internet… has become a shouting match. And it’s no longer about who shouts the loudest; it’s about who shouts the smartest.” While this is not necessarily true when it comes to reality TV or international politics, it’s definitely the case when it comes to visual communication.

Visual communication is the process of delivering a message using only what you can see, rather than what you read, hear or telepathically absorb. In recent years, it’s become more and more essential to know the intricacies behind it, as audiences expect more information in less time. Visual communication is not only a way to improve the user experience by offering them something attractive to look at, it also increases the speed at which they absorb information. Speed is especially important in a world where attention spans are drastically shorter than that of older generations.

But just because you understand how to use emojis, does not mean you know how visual communication works. Allow me to give you my top four reasons a design can fail to properly communicate its message.

Consider the information hierarchy

People ‘read’ a picture as much as they read a page of text. When it comes to a page of text, however, it’s pretty straightforward where you start and go from there. Visual communication defines how the audience will absorb its message and that control is crucial to the effectiveness of the design.

In order to properly communicate a point, a designer must first know what the most important element of the design is. The most important element needs to be the very first thing audiences are drawn to. This could be the brand name or an image that communicates the message clearly. Whatever it is, it will need to be the most prominent component of the design, such as the centre or at the top, depending, of course, on the project. From there, the slightly less important elements in the hierarchy (they could be subtitles, copy or non-essential information) must be arranged in order to be absorbed in the correct order. This gives the designer control over how the audience ‘reads’ the design. It should read clearly without the need for explanation in text. The more that has to be written, the less effective the design.

Don’t make too many levels to the hierarchy, though; you don’t want too much going on in the design. Which brings us to…

Make sure your design isn’t too busy

I think the best design is a simple one – keeping designs sleek and smooth (it has worked just fine for Apple) and/or using techniques like negative spaces. While the stylisation of your design will change depending on your client and project, the logic stands true: a cluttered design will be difficult for your audience to translate.

Websites like Buzzfeed often crowd their web pages with content and, while you can’t argue with their success, as a designer it gives me a headache. Printed magazines have also started taking the same direction, which is a shame because well-structured and organised content can offer so much more.

Many people assume that a cluttered design simply means there are too many elements, but that’s not the case. It’s about the presentation of the elements. Audiences don’t want to have to think too much about what you’re telling them: they want visual communication to work for them. The message being put across should be instantly recognisable. That’s why, if a designer is throwing elements into their design with reckless abandon, it won’t keep the attention of the audience. Use the hierarchy of information and find a balance between imagery and text.

Know how to use colour

Depending on the media, some colours work better than others. The obvious rule is that bright colours will garner more attention, but that might not work for your audience. For instance, a construction company is unlikely to want a luminous green and pink design, even if it does mean it’s more likely to be seen.

Everything in a brand’s content needs to be targeted towards its audience and be in line with the brand identity. This includes colour. Before the design even starts, the colour scheme should be well established and in keeping with the tone and schemes of the company. The design’s colour scheme needs to be associated with the brand image and any existing colours they use in their identity. When people look at your content, they should be reminded of the brand by the colour alone. That’s how to maintain a brand’s identity.

Bare in mind that colour portrays mood and tone as well. Make sure the designer has a brand-appropriate colour wheel so that they are aware in advance which moods and tones are appropriate.

Use typography to communicate

Typography follows much the same logic as colour – the brand/business should have established fonts and styles that they think represent them. If it doesn’t, these must be fixed before the designer starts work. The font needs to offer brand information in much the same way the colour does. How the type is displayed can tell an audience about a brand’s target market, what kind of product they sell (modern fonts tend to be associated with moving forward, so favoured by tech companies), what tone they want to present and how established the company name is. In many ways, the typography gives more information than the text it displays.

Visual communication can help a brand reach larger audiences because it’s the only language that’s universal to all cultures. The whole point of visual communication is making your message legible. Visual communication is all about communication made easy, so why over-complicate it?