The Power of the Visual, and the Inevitable Exception for Giant Babies

Pete Brown
Pete Brown // October 18, 2018

Back when I turned 40, I had a more-or-less textbook midlife crisis which saw me enroll in a three-day motorcycle riding course and buy an old bike to tool around on.

On the first day of class, the instructor asked if we knew the number one cause of motorcycle accidents. As a class, we offered up guesses like “drunk riding,” “rider error,” “weather,” and ‘ even “road rage.”

We were all wrong! The correct answer was “visibility,” by which he meant that car drivers often don’t see motorcyclists. Their brains are primed for seeing other four-wheeled vehicles, and as such, they take less note of their two-wheeled brethren. That’s why so many of us wear bright neon reflective gear when we ride – to make ourselves more visible.

It’s also likely why, when you go to the BMV in Ohio, you can pick up a free magnetic bumper sticker that reads “Look out for motorcycles.” In fact, everyone who took the class got one, and you will see them from time to time while driving around Ohio.

I have to admit I was disappointed when I saw these bumper stickers. Because while the idea behind them is great, the visual execution could be much more effective. Here’s what I mean:

Can you read that? I took that picture while I was pulled right up behind the car in front of me that had the bumper sticker. In fact, ancillary to my midlife crisis, I also got Lasik, and now my vision is 20/15—better than perfect—and yet I still cannot make out what the bumper sticker says from about 10 feet away.

If I work at it, I can make out the words LOOK OUT, which the designer has chosen to make the biggest, although arguably “Motorcycles” is probably the more important text here and it’s in tiny lettering. And the graphic, in and of itself a cool, stylized brush-stroke style rider, does absolutely nothing to help the viewer understand what the bumper sticker is trying to communicate. Unless you’re right on top of this thing, it seems to me that it’s failing to do what it was designed for: prompt and nudge drivers to keep an eye out for motorcycles.

What would I do differently? Maybe something like this:

This design leverages our shared understanding of a caution sign to provide the warning part of the message, and the realistic motorcycle graphic is not only instantly recognizable, but it is also priming the viewer’s brain to be on the lookout for that type of profile on the road. By removing text entirely, we’ve made the parsing of the warning sign near instantaneous, and able to be done from much further away.

But wait! You may be thinking that the producers of this bumper sticker chose the rectangular layout for budgetary reasons. At about 3″ x 11″, it was likely a default size—requiring no special die to cut each one, thus allowing more of these to be made and distributed for the same amount of money. Fair enough!

So what would I do if I had to work with the size and shape of the original bumper sticker:

I’m still using text here, but the caution lines are doing some heavy lifting in what the bumper sticker is trying to communicate. Both designs seek to reduce the cognitive load on the viewer and enable swift parsing of their core message.

The Inevitable Exception
While in most cases, privileging imagery over text will improve the processing time for viewers, there is, as always, exceptions, including this well-known one:

So why did they choose to use the text “Baby On Board” instead of a graphic?

Well, let’s take a look at a graphic treatment:

Now I don’t know about you, but to me, that parses as “Caution! Giant Baby!” So unless we’re trying to warn our fellow citizens about imminent giant baby attacks, the choice to use text here instead of a visual is validated.

I do want to applaud the state and other organizations who are trying to keep motorcycling safe by reminding our four-wheeled brothers and sisters to keep an eye out for us on the road. I just want those efforts to be as effective as possible. And that means leveraging the power of visuals to make communications clear and direct.

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If you’d like one of my suggested redesigns, feel free to download the original source files here and here, and have your own printed up.