Indexical Images in Visual Storytelling

Instructor: Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer

Amy has a master's degree in secondary education and has taught math at a public charter high school.

In this lesson, you'll learn about indexical images and how you can use them to evoke emotions from your audience without having to say things too literally.

Indexical Images

Picture a commercial of a young child receiving an ice cream cone. He jumps up and down excitedly, and the ice cream falls out of the cone and onto the floor. At this point, the sound stops and you no longer see the child. You only see the ice cream on the floor beginning to melt. How do you feel? This is an example of an indexical image, or an image that represents a meaning without having to specifically say it. These types of images are a great way to evoke certain emotions in your visual storytelling. If you can evoke emotions without having to literally say it, then the emotions will be more powerful.

For example, instead of seeing that ice cream fall onto the ground and start melting, would you feel the same level of sadness and empathy for the child if you saw the child crying? You still might feel sad, but now that sadness is also tinged with stress. Hearing children crying is always stressful. Nobody likes it. It is true that whatever the child is crying about is sad, but seeing and hearing them cry takes away from the sadness of the moment. Using the indexical image, however, allows you to evoke the feeling of sadness without other distractors.

Seeing ice cream spilled on the ground melting is more effective at evoking sadness than seeing a crying child
indexical images

Other examples of indexical images include:

  • A thermometer showing how hot or cold it is.
  • Cute playful kittens and puppies to represent happiness.
  • Images of people in 80s outfits to evoke feelings of nostalgia.

Using Indexical Images

In order to use indexical images to your advantage, think of what meanings you want to represent and what emotions you want to evoke. Do you want to represent a place that evokes feelings of peace and calm for a hotel commercial in a foreign destination? Or do you want to evoke feelings of fear for a commercial about safety equipment?

Once you've figured out your emotions and meanings, you can then think about what types of indexical images will show those emotions and meanings. For a place that evokes feelings of peace and calm for the hotel commercial, a nicely arranged spa room will work, as will a clean, bright lounge area around a pool. For a feeling of fear for the safety equipment commercial, you can show a burglar unlocking a locked door. In both of these situations, you aren't mentioning any of the emotions directly; you are using an image or visual to represent another meaning in order to evoke certain emotions.

Once you've figured out what images and visuals you want to work with, you are then ready to add design elements to make your meanings and emotions that much more pronounced.

Design Elements to Use

Color, texture, and space in indexical images will emphasize your meaning and emotions. Using the right color palette is important, as certain colors evoke certain feelings. A peaceful poolside scene can be made dreary and sad-looking if the color palette contains beiges and dull greens. But a color palette that's fresh with bright and soft, clear blues makes the scene that much more clean, serene, and peaceful.

It's also important to consider texture. In order to evoke feelings of fear, use harsh textures to make that feeling of fear seem more intense. Dark colors also will add to that feeling.

As you use your visuals, also think about your space. Having too many visuals can interfere with your intended message, so keep your space focused on the meanings and emotions that you want to convey.

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