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Visual Concepts

Successful campaigns choose visuals that grab people’s attention and convey a message that resonates with their audiences

To explore how R&D advocates can make the best use of visual messaging, we used nationally-representative polling to map out a set of fundamental visual elements – or choices – that face those building R&D campaigns. This tested a range of different poster concepts, mocked up in nine pairs to explore particular elements of each, and then compared as a whole.

Messaging and ideas were informed by the results of the May and July 2022 polls and the December 2022 focus groups, with all the creative designs produced by the agency Luna 9. 

This survey ran in February 2023 and had a sample size of 4,005. The results are being incorporated into further campaign and design development stages, along with the best practice guidance and toolkit that we are developing. 

Guide to interpreting this data


Key takeaways

  • Campaign visuals need to capture someone’s attention quickly, while effectively delivering a message 
  • A successful visual will use elements that are bold, simple, tangible and realistic
  • The better performing visuals were more likely to be described as eye-catching, interesting, inspiring or exciting
  • Visuals focused on climate change, a greener future and medical research performed well    

This section explores how visuals can be used to greater effect during the development of an R&D campaign, focusing primarily on broad concepts rather than the specifics of the message or messenger. 

From testing paired concepts – for instance, bold versus subtle designs – we can inform the choices that may face designers working with R&D messages. And by exploring the feelings each concept elicited, we can understand why those concepts performed better. 

From our results, we can conclude that clarity and excitement are crucial for successful visual messaging around R&D. The better performing visuals were more likely to be described as eye-catching, interesting, inspiring and exciting, and they tended to be images that were perceived to be clear. 

From a comparison of image pairs, we can see that tangible and bold visual messages are preferred. For instance, concepts that were specific, tangible and serious performed better than their generic, subtle and playful counterparts, while those designed to be bold, rich in colour and focused on photographic elements were preferred over those designed to be subtle, colour-restrained and typographic. 

Finally, we can look at the most popular concepts overall to draw additional conclusions about messaging. For instance, it is notable that the five most popular concepts overall had some common themes. This included a focus on the future (for instance, two have the wording “The Future is green”), the nature of incremental progress associated with R&D (for instance, the slogan “Try and Try Again”) and being associated with either climate change or medical research. This tallies with the results of our message testing, which identified these as key concerns, showed that the future was a strong motivator of support, and identified appetite for more information on progress towards milestones in the process of R&D.  

Comparing paired visuals by concept

For each set of pairs tested, we used a split sample approach to test whether they liked or disliked the visuals; what words they would use to describe them; and whether they agreed with a set of statements about them – these were whether it grabs their attention, it is visually interesting, they would be interested to learn more about it, and if it is memorable.

We then presented both the images to all respondents and presented a set of binary choices: which of the visuals they prefer; which would be better as an interesting and memorable part of an R&D campaign; and which they think would elicit particular responses (these responses differed depending on the pairs).

Bold or subtle

These concepts contrasted a bold image of a mechanical arm with large lettering, with smaller more subtle versions of both, with more space without imagery. 

The bold image performed better across all questions. When assessed separately, the bold image was more strongly liked by respondents, and seen as more impactful by every measure. The most common words used to describe it were interesting and eye-catching; the subtle was seen as boring and uninspiring.  

When given a binary choice, 67% said they prefer the bold concept, and 70% said the bold image would be better as an interesting and memorable part of an R&D campaign. Similarly, a clear majority said the bold image was more confident, attention-grabbing and exciting. 

Younger respondents were far more likely to say they liked either image than older respondents. Preference for the subtle image is higher among younger people than older people, although still in the minority by some way. Those with a higher level of formal education also showed more preference for the subtle image, although it was still in the minority.

Colour rich or restrained

This concept tested the same imagery and text, one rich in colour and one restrained, with just the outlines shown in colour.  

The colour rich image performed better across all questions. When assessed separately, this image was liked by more respondents, and they were more likely to agree that it was visually interesting and memorable. The top two terms to describe the colour rich image were eye-catching and bold; the top two terms used to describe colour restrained image were boring and uninspiring.  

When given a binary choice, 82% preferred the colour rich image, and 83% said it would be better as an interesting and memorable part of an R&D campaign. Similar proportions chose this image as being more inspiring, attention-grabbing and exciting. 

The colour rich image was preferred by a similar ratio across every demographic group, with the highest preference for the colour restrained concept among 18-24 year olds at 25%, nearly double the preference among older respondents.

Tangible or conceptual 

These images are both based on the Large Hadron Collider, with the tangible concept an image of the actual collider and the conceptual one a more abstract interpretation of the collider with broken up text. 

The tangible concept performed better across all questions, but both images performed well, including being described in overall positive terms. When assessed separately, the tangible image was liked by more respondents. The top terms to describe the tangible concept were interesting (34%), serious (28%) and eye-catching (28%). For the conceptual image, these were eye-catching (27%), interesting (22%) and bold (19%). However, the conceptual image was more likely to be described as uninspiring or busy. 

When given a binary choice, 74% preferred the tangible image, and 73% said it would be better as an interesting and memorable part of an R&D campaign. Similar proportions described this image as being more attention-grabbing, easy to understand and most likely to make someone curious. 

Unlike other pairs, there is a significant gender identity difference in how the tangible and conceptual concepts were perceived, with women being more likely than men to prefer the conceptual concept (30% compared to 22%) – although the vast majority still preferred the tangible concept.

The Ideologically Conflicted and Issue Driven were slightly less likely to think the tangible concept was easier to understand than the conceptual image.

Futuristic or current 

These images used the text “The future is green”, with one showing a futuristic image of a green city and the other a modern image of multi-storey building with green walls. 

Both of these concepts performed well, with the current image liked by 74% and the futuristic liked by 71%. Similarly, both images performed well on the set of questions when asked separately, and the top three terms were eye-catching, interesting and inspiring for each.  

For this design pair, we also asked whether the images were realistic or unrealistic depictions of the future: 24% thought the futuristic concept was realistic, while 46% thought the current concept was. 

When given a binary choice, respondents were split on which design concept they preferred: 52% preferred the current and 48% the futuristic; similarly 51% said the current concept would be better as an interesting and memorable part of an R&D campaign. Although there was a fairly even split on which was more optimistic about the future (55% said the current concept), the current concept was seen as more relatable by 69%. 

When asked which they preferred, there was a slight preference for the current concept among women, older groups and the Future Focussed and Ideologically Conflicted segments.

Simple or intricate 

These images used the text “Powering progress” and showed an engine as a whole (simple) and one broken into its constituent parts and laid flat (intricate). 

These concepts performed similarly, although neither was as well-liked as some of the more popular designs we tested.  

The same proportion (43%) liked both designs, and there was little difference between whether the concepts were seen as being visually interesting, whether they made people want to learn more, whether they are memorable or whether they grabbed respondents’ attention. The top term to describe both concepts was interesting, but the intricate one was more likely to be described as busy or boring.  

For this pair, we asked respondents how easy or difficult they found it to understand what the image is showing: 59% said the simple concept was very or somewhat easy to understand while 48% said the same for the intricate concept. Notably, the Ideologically Conflicted tended to find it challenging to understand either image, but particularly the intricate one, where 60% said that this is difficult to understand. For the Future Focussed, a majority found the intricate image difficult to understand (56%) and a majority found the simple image easy to understand (54%).

When given a binary choice, 55% preferred the simple concept, and 53% think it is better suited to an R&D campaign. However, younger respondents were more likely to prefer the intricate concept, and those aged 18-24 were the only demographic group we studied to choose this concept over the simple one (56% to 44%). The Future Focussed and Ideologically Conflicted segments most strongly preferred the simple concept over the intricate (57% to 43%), perhaps because of the difficulty of understanding what was on display in the simple image that these groups expressed.

A majority thought the simple concept was easiest to understand (61%), more likely to grab someone’s attention (57%) and the most satisfying to look at (53%); however the intricate concept was the most likely to make people curious (55%).

Micro or macro impact 

These concepts looked at the impact of climate-change images focused on a small landscape (micro) or aerial view of the world (macro).

Respondents were equally likely to like both designs, although younger people were substantially more likely to say they liked the macro design concept. We saw little difference between the two design concepts when respondents were asked about them separately, although notably 68% agreed the macro design grabbed their attention, compared with 59% who said the same about the micro concept. Both designs were seen as serious and eye-catching, although both were also seen as upsetting by around a quarter of the sample.

When given a binary choice, 56% preferred the macro concept, and 57% thought it was better suited to an R&D campaign. Again, younger respondents were more likely to prefer the macro concept (66% of 18-24s), while a majority of those over 65 (57%) preferred the micro concept.

A majority thought the macro concept was better at grabbing someone’s attention, generating curiosity and making people inspired to take action, while the micro concept was by a small margin seen as the more relatable image of the two.

Serious or playful 

These images used the text “Everybody’s invited”, with the serious concept using scientific, medical and technical imagery and the playful concept using a cartoon person with icons and imagery to show technical and medical elements. 

The serious image was liked by 54% of respondents, while the playful one was liked by 39%. The serious concept also saw higher levels of agreement with the set of statements about interest, attention and memorability than the playful one. Both concepts were seen as eye-catching and interesting, but where the serious concept was seen as bold and academic the playful concept was seen to be busy and childish.

When given a binary choice, 74% preferred the serious concept, and 73% think it is better suited to an R&D campaign. The age group with the highest proportion who prefer the playful concept are the 25-34s, where 30% preferred it. 

A majority thought the serious concept was the design that was more approachable, would grab someone’s attention and was more trustworthy. 

Typographic or photographic 

These images used the text “Try and try again / cancer research”, with the typographic concept repeating the “try and” text, while the photographic one showed a set of petri dishes with bacteria or yeasts growing on them. 

The photographic image was the most successful. It was liked by 60% of respondents (with 18% disliking it), compared with 43% who liked (and 36% who disliked) the typographic one. A majority agreed the photographic image grabbed their attention, was visually interesting, memorable and that they would like to learn more. The typographic image was less successful on all these counts. 

The top three terms used to describe the photographic image were eye-catching, interesting and inspiring; it was also much more likely to be described as eye-catching, interesting and academic than the typographic. In contrast, the typographic image was more likely to be described as uninspiring, busy and boring than the other. 

When given a binary choice, 75% preferred the photographic concept and 74% thought it was better suited to an R&D campaign. There was little difference between segments or demographic groups.

A majority thought the photographic concept would be more likely to stick in your mind, grab someone’s attention and be trustworthy. 

Lab person or generic person 

These images used the same model, but with one in a lab setting and one in a more generic setting, holding a tablet. The aim with this pairing was to test respondents’ reactions to a more stereotypical idea of what a researcher looks like, or where they would work. 

Some 56% said they liked the lab person concept, compared with just 33% who liked the generic person concept. Similarly, the lab person concept was seen as more effective than the generic person concept in all areas we tested at this point, although overall the lab person was not as effective as some of the other visuals tested in the whole poll. 

The top three terms used to describe the lab person concept were academic, serious and clear; the top three terms used to describe the generic person concept were boring, uninspiring and serious. 

When given a binary choice, 86% preferred the lab person concept and 84% thought it was better suited to an R&D campaign. There was little difference between demographic groups or segments. A clear majority said the lab person concept was more relatable, that they trusted the person more and that they were more authentic. 

Comparing all concepts 

Following the paired testing, we showed respondents all of the visuals and asked them which they liked the most, allowing them to select up to three. The current concept was the most popular, being chosen by 30% of respondents. This was followed by the photographic (26%), futuristic (24%) and serious (22%). The least popular was the colour restrained concept, being chosen by just 2%. 

Looking at preferences by segment, the current concept was preferred by the Ideologically Aligned (31%), Future Focussed (34%), Present Focussed (28%), tied with the photographic concept for the Ideologically Conflicted (29% and 28%), and joint-most popular among Issue Driven (27%) with the futuristic concept.

Younger people preferred the macro concept (chosen by 32% for those aged 18-24) followed by the serious, current and futuristic concepts. In contrast, those aged over 65 preferred the photographic concept (28%), followed by the current, lab person and colour rich concepts. 

When asked why they preferred the current concept, 74% said they found it eye-catching. Similarly, the reasons given by those who selected the other popular concepts – photographic, futuristic and serious – was most likely to be that it was eye-catching. These images were also likely to be chosen because they conveyed a message. 

When asked which design concepts would make them more interested to learn more about what the visual was showing, the current concept was again the most selected (by 27%). It was most popular across all segments apart from the Ideologically Conflicted, where it tied with the photographic concept. 

Notably, some age groups felt that an image other than the one they preferred would make them more interested to learn more: for 18-24s (who preferred the macro image), it was a tie between macro, current and serious; for 25-34s, it was futuristic, current and macro; for 55-64s it was photographic. 

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Knowledge of R&D
Benefits of R&D
Investing in R&D
Opportunities to Engage
Messages and Messaging
Visual Concepts
Segmenting our Audiences