Power of Images: Faces

In my last post, I covered how to be smart with your images and avoid negative reactions by properly engaging sympathy and empathy. I mentioned that seeing another human face has psychological effects on its own. Let’s unpack that a bit.

A basic understanding of the power of another person’s face as an image on a website is crucial to ensuring you don’t do the wrong thing. You need to be aware of what happens when people see a face and how flippant stock photography selections can actually result in an entire section being ignored.

This is yet another “design trend” you might discover and implement without getting the full explanation, and that can lead to gaining nothing at all or even making things worse.

Aesthetics in Mathematics

Any time we take a look into why something appeals to us as people, and it turns out it’s happening on a subconscious level, the explanation feels ridiculous. It sounds like it couldn’t possibly be happening to us. We’re designers! We’re developers! We’re researchers! We’re writers! We’re above that, aren’t we?

Nope. Every time we discount the understanding of why something works, we risk misuse.

Seeing the human form triggers an emotional reaction, because our brain is constantly trying to relate what we’re taking in through our senses back to us. It helps us make sense of the world. So, using an image of a person on your site gives you the opportunity to connect emotionally, but that also gives you the chance to create the wrong emotion.

Now, try to put down any issues with how our society perceives beauty, culturally-speaking. You need to understand and use the science. It’s nuts, but most of what we know about how we perceive beauty aesthetically points to the golden ratio.  It’s been used intentionally for centuries because our brain identifies with the proportions it creates. It’s all around you:

Golden Ratio

It directly relates to how humans perceive beauty in faces. And, our best understanding for why the golden ratio is pleasing to us is that we’re capable of interpreting images our eye takes in faster when they feature it.

So, it’s far less about age or skin color, and far more about the ratios inherently present in the human form presented.

The Power of the Image

Though there’s lots more to successful photography than the following, two elements of the contents of an image can help you avoid undesired reactions and shape emotional connections.

Line of Sight

If the person in your image is looking somewhere other than straight ahead, people will actually follow that line of sight!

following the line of sight

So, take care of where you’re sending your visitors’ gaze! I’m betting you won’t want to direct them away from the most important elements of your site. Instead, take advantage of our human reactions.


Aaron Walter points out in “Designing for Emotion” that the cropping of a photo can shape the visitor’s emotional perspective as well:

Photographs cropped tight to the subject’s face encourage an emotional response from the viewer, while emphasizing the personality of the subject. Wider subject cropping emphasizes the physical appearance of the subject.

Do you want people to connect with the people in the image, or what the people in the image are doing? Proper cropping can help you get the right message across, and it’s easy to forget when so many designs are auto-cropping images.

The Wrong Picture

Our brains developed a way to help us be more efficient on websites, and it’s been documented for nearly a decade already. It’s called banner blindness, and it’s pretty safe to assume it’s only gotten more well-tuned.

Essentially, we’re able to recognize things that look like advertisements on a page without even looking directly at them.

Know what looks like ads these days? Cheesy, obviously staged stock photographs. Avoid them like the plague.

Always opt for actual photography (as in hiring an actual photographer to shoot the images you want). If you can’t do that, pick images that look natural, even if they cost more money. Ask for second opinions on images if you’re not sure.

Bad photo selection, editing, and presentation can make or break your site. Use this to your advantage!

  1. Power of Images: Empathy & Sympathy
  2. Power of Images: Faces

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Written by Cliff Seal. Last Updated 8 years ago.
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