The Power of Words and Pictures: 5 rules for health-literate design

The Power of Words and Pictures: 5 Rules for Health Literate Design

You’ve heard the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Jerry Siegel might disagree.

You’ve probably never heard of Jerry, but you’ve heard of Superman. Everybody has. You probably even have a very vivid image of him in your head right now. Skin-tight blue suit. Red cape flowing behind him. Big red “S” on his chest. You know the guy.

Or do you?

You know what he looks like, sure. But what would Superman be without his distinctive backstory. Born on the doomed planet Krypton. Launched to Earth and adopted by simple farm folks. Forced to accept his responsibility as defender of the vulnerable. Permanent outcast. Foil to Lex Luthor, and, sometimes, Bruce Wayne. Tendency to monologue at great length about “truth, justice and the American way.”

Without words, Superman is just a picture of a guy in tights.

Jerry Siegel wrote that story, but he didn’t draw the iconic pictures. Those came from the talented hands of his creative partner, Joe Schuster. Had they never met, there would be no Superman.

Words. Pictures. Put together effectively, they can have power well beyond what either would individually. It’s true in graphic novels. And it’s true in health communications.

Let’s face it: Explaining what causes diabetes or why exercise is important for maintaining heart health can be complicated. Try to do it with words alone and it becomes almost impossible for non-health professionals to understand.

If you want to reach people and persuade them to engage in the management of their health, you have to make sure the information you’re communicating is accessible and understandable to your audience.

Pictures can help. So can charts, graphs, infographics, colors and even font selection.

In a recent post, I suggested 6 tips for clearer communication. Hopefully you’re using them. If you really want to make your message sing, combine the power of words with pictures and good design. Just remember these five rules:

  1. Illustrations and photos should enhance the effectiveness of the information you’re trying to communicate, not just fill up empty space. Make sure your images “say something,” just like your words.
  1. Use familiar visuals to simplify complex health conditions. A water park can represent the circulatory system. A fusebox can stand in for synapses. Kidneys can be described using the imagery of a sieve or a water filter.
  1. Consider your audience. Hispanic audiences recognize the “fotonovela” style, which has been proven extra-effective with people who don’t speak English as their primary language. Millennials communicate with emojis and memes. Give people what they want if you want them to pay attention.
  1. When in doubt, simplify. Charts, graphs and tables can be excellent tools. They can also intimidate. In general, simpler is better. Communicate only the key points that will move your audience toward the desired behavior. Consider icons that “connect-the-dots” for readers.
  1. Tell a visual story. Just like Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster did with Superman, remember that words and pictures must go hand-in-hand. Never write copy without a plan for how it will be visually represented. Likewise, don’t get stuck on an image or illustration you like if it doesn’t enhance the message.

For more information, visit the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their websites include excellent guidance on developing health literate communications.

Need help? Visit or call (305) 350-5700 today. We can’t leap over tall buildings in a single bound, but we can help you harness the powerful combination of words and pictures to create messaging that your audience will think is “super.”






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