Why Trust and Authenticity are Integral to the Future of Visual Language



“When people create, they’re trying to make things happen. And the more they can make things happen, that’s how we make progress.” — Mikael Cho, CEO and Co-Founder, Unsplash


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In an age of social distancing it’s no secret our feeds and screens have regained new prominence. These are the windows to the world now more than ever and in turn, it is our responsibility as marketers to empower social and digital channels with visual content that is authentic in line with the IRL life that we are closed off to during this pandemic.

During #SMWONE, Grey Digital Strategy Director Asad Shaykh and Unsplash CEO and Co-Founder Mikael Cho came together to explore this topic in-depth — particularly how Unsplash is empowering its community from more realistic depictions of our WFH life to supporting the UN through a visual Public Service Announcement system. They also discussed the future of visual language and how businesses and influencers can arm the world’s storytellers with an image of what is real, at a time when accurate representation is needed most.

Here are the primary insights and takeaways:

  • The more people can create the more progress we’ll see
  • Authenticity is key to remain on social
  • Trust and humanity are core to adapting to a growing immersive reality

Giving the UN the Unsplash Effect

A few weeks ago, the United Nations issued a global callout to creatives to submit their best visuals ideas to support the fight against COVID-19. After 17,000 submissions came in, the issue became finding somewhere to get them seen everywhere, quickly.

Unsplash jumped at the opportunity and mobilized by launching a UN account on the platform with the mission of getting the visuals posted there seen by 1 billion people in the span of 30 days. To achieve this, the company set aside featured placements on the company homepage and across relevant searches. All the UN visuals on Unsplash will also be open for use across its 1,820 API partners including Medium, Buzzfeed, Google Slides, Squarespace, Figma, Notion, and Adobe.

“Time and again, we’ve seen that if we can get great visuals in front of creators, they will push the impact of those visuals further than we ever could have imagined,” shared Cho in the official announcement shared on his personal Twitter account. “Our and the UN’s aim is to make sure these visuals are seen by as many people as possible.” In short, Unsplash used its platform and distribution power to become a visual Public Service Announcement system for the UN.

Usefulness: the Key to Authenticity and Trust

Beyond PowerPoints and business plans, images are increasingly being used to tell stories in today’s world when we either fortunately or unfortunately, are dependent on the screen to understand human stories during this global pandemic. When asked how Unsplash’s business has adapted and how the company is looking to maintain trust and authenticity with its visuals — Cho explained that it boils down to usefulness. Specifically, once an image circulates, it takes on its own life and meaning. As people collect images, they take on a representation grounded in human inspiration and interpretation. Currently, there are over 10M user-generated collections on Unsplash.

“Unsplash is not a social network. It’s a place for people to get visuals they can use and find the fundamental building blocks to tell a story on a platform where they already have an audience,” Cho reiterated. For the past few weeks, this has boiled down to truly listening to its community and paying attention to the shifts in the types of content they reflected in the top 20 searches they needed most during these times. Generally speaking, the platform saw a 2,000 percent (2M to 45M) uptick in DIY-centered content. The result was a new, human-curated library — one that played into Unsplash’s lateral and democratic approach to a free market with borderless creativity.

“When people create, they’re trying to make things happen. And the more they can make things happen, that’s how we make progress,” noted Cho. Put differently, Unsplash is not restricted to any geographic region and a large reason why authenticity and diversity ring true and loud through its visuals is due in large part that naturally people will fill gaps when certain content is lacking. Innate trust is bred therefore, as people are able to tell their own visual story through their own perspectives and experiences.

The future of visual branding and the role of visual language

Brands are all around us and having this acknowledged in a visual makes this notion feel more genuine. “As a brand, you may know what your brand goal is — and our job is to say here are the visuals that represent that goal and we’re going to let people create what that looks like.” In turn, you not only help people reach full potential essentially through these integrations but you create an authentic incentive to spread the message far and wide.

The world is becoming increasingly immersive and digital, but the priority should not be to withhold visuals — rather find organic ways to participate and empower audiences in fundamentally positive ways. Cho pointed to TikTok as a platform he finds leading in this space that is focused on rawness over professional quality. This applies to Unsplash as well where people are shooting either with the best camera they have or in other instances their mobile device. The big takeaway: keep humanity at the core of this evolving immersive reality. Doing otherwise is counterproductive and will only detract from a shift to digital experiences being viewed as authentic and welcomed versus content that is distracting and disruptive and that we want to skip or scroll over.

“Authenticity is key to remain on social if you just want to resonate with one person or 100 people if we try to really understand ‘I know how that looks’ or ‘I know I feel like that’ we’ll have done our job as social media custodians,” Shakyh offered as a closing comment.

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