I have a client who is pushing the use of very literal imagery for her website: waving hands for success, a finishing line for the end of a process, and so on. We're trying to make more use of indirect imagery, partly to support the brand but also to encourage deeper engagement. Is there any research available to show the relative merits of both approaches?

  • Not sure about research. But the latter obviously takes more thought. More thought = more thoughtful solution.
    – DA01
    Feb 8, 2013 at 17:17
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    Also note that your client, while not wrong, is using the 'common' concept, which means it's a lot harder to differentiate their overall brand/look from everyone else that uses the same over-done metaphors.
    – DA01
    Feb 8, 2013 at 17:20
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    I can't quote research, but I call these back to front symbols: thinking "What do I think of when I think about success?" instead of "What will make people think of success when they see it?". You could try explaining how it doesn't go the other way - show someone a finishing line out of context and they'll think of running, racing, competition, athletes... It's like that cliche: "I want readers of our corporate report to think of us flying high. Put a hot air balloon on it!". So readers see a symbol of relaxing leisure, and begin daydreaming what they'd rather do than reading this report... Feb 8, 2013 at 20:07

3 Answers 3


"One good experiment is worth a thousand expert opinions." — Bill Nye, the science guy.

I agree, test it against an alternative.

Use the better of the two.

Probably, nothing published will relate to your situation, specifically, unless it is too glib or vague to be of any practical use.

If you don't have enough time or money to test the concept in question, specifically, go with your client who is footing the bill and will get credit or lose credibility for the presentation in their name. It's their responsibility unless you claim to be a content expert.


It sounds like you need a good argument against the obvious design decision.

The book "A Smile in the Mind" states:

The best graphic design does more than capture attention and make the audience linger. It prolongs the encounter, compelling the reader not only to notice, but to remember. This book is about making graphics memorable by using witty thinking…

So if you want the users to remember the site, and stick around a bit more not being obvious/literal is one good way to achieve that. There are more in depth examples in the book but I'm away from my library at the moment and can't post anymore direct quotes. I recommend it as a read for anyone wishing to produce more witty designs.


I think this is what you are looking for:


  • Fascinating paper, but the paper is talking about the two (often simultaneous) ways evaluative conditioning occurs: direct affect transfer and indirect affect transfer. Direct affect transfer happens through diffuse affect (or affect confusion), whereby simultaneous presentation of the affective stimulus (e.g. a celebrity endorser) and the brand causes the affect generated by the endorser to "spill over" to the brand. OTOH, indirect transfer is through learned association with the memory of the affective stimulus. Feb 8, 2013 at 15:45
  • Indirect transfer, according to the article, is more likely to happen when the brand and affective stimulus are presented sequentially rather than simultaneously, which is partly how the study examines/differentiates the two learning processes. So it's not really about literal or non-literal imagery as the poster is asking about. Secondly, the use of URL shorteners is discouraged on SE. (There's really no need for it here, especially in answers.) Lastly, answers should not simply include a link without any sort of summary should the link die in the future. Feb 8, 2013 at 15:47
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    I took our the URL shortened URL and provided a direct link. This, however, is still not a good answer as links can die. If you could, please summarize the content on the link.
    – DA01
    Feb 8, 2013 at 17:18
  • my fault, I must have comment instead of posting answer. Feb 8, 2013 at 17:48
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    I would encourage anyone to be careful in a discussion like this with a client. If you start talking about affect transfer etc, you will probably be considered, at best, odd, and at worst, a total asshole. Ultimately citing papers and research will not win your argument and is probably going to be a tactical failure regardless of you being technically correct.
    – horatio
    Feb 8, 2013 at 18:25

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