Many years ago as an Art History student I read a book called “Ways of Seeing”. It used pictures to challenge the way we respond to visual content and, as essays go, it remains one of the most memorable I have come across.

I can still recall the images even though I haven’t looked at it in over 30 years.  Powerful visual imagery has the potential to unlock our deep emotions, from subliminal rock paintings that connect us with our ancient past; to the friend who confided a Rothko had once moved them to tears – it strikes me that there must be something behind the construct of these visual icons of our civilised history.

Starry Night
The Starry Night | Vincent van Gogh

We’ve always been obsessed with uncovering mystical secrets…from the ancient alchemy of making gold from base metal to distilling the olfactory essence of humankind in “Perfume”.  Visual creative through time, from the depths of Lascaux’s cave painting to the cutting edge of contemporary digital design demonstrates an amazing ability to captivate us long enough to create engagement and communicate some theme, idea or proposition.

Picture1Girl with a Pearl Earring | Johannes Vermeer

So, what makes visual genius… well… genius?  Is there a secret recipe, the ingredients of which the grand masters over time have learned to unlock and use to captivate our attention? Maybe our modern creative directors have an extra gene enabling them to turn us to putty in their hands using visual imagery? Increasingly neuroscience suggests that there are unique formulas, inherent in our basic human brain functions.

Is it the innate or learned skills of the creative director, honed over a lifetime, learning what works and what fails, by trial and error, bringing that finesse to the modern studios of creativity? Modern creative genius lies in the hands of a select few, highly experienced creatives who understand what flicks our emotional switches, and use these skills to sell us things…and they are of course as a result a highly prized, highly priced resource.

If we wrote a list of the most beautiful icons of our times, the list would be long and varied, very much subjective, reflecting our individuality and culture.  But it would be surprising if there wasn’t some commonality to what appeared in the top 10. The question is why these iconic images have the ability to arrest our attention?

Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa | Leonardo da Vinci

When Leonardo da Vinci first put brush to board in Renaissance Italy, creating the Mona Lisa, was he somehow painting by magic numbers or was he capturing the essence of his model?  He was clearly an entrepreneurial genius ahead of his time, but he understood how to draw the human eye to the core of his composition by appealing to our fundamental visual instincts.

Luncheon of the Boating Party | Pierre-Auguste Renoir

If we set out a premise that it is possible to bottle visual essence, can we begin to model this by understanding how the human brain processes visual content, and use technology to replicate it? Could we create a black box of technology to read visual content and predict its impact on human response? Could we use this to add value to communication through images?  If we can do this in real time we can use it to develop imagery optimised for impact before it is unleashed on its public?

Not only is this the case, but we’ve actually created a software solution that does this in real time, helping us to not only understand what makes visual imagery work, but puts a control panel in our hands which we can use to manipulate visual content to create the highest saliency in the areas where we want it.

The Persistence of Memory | Salvador Dali
The Persistence of Memory | Salvador Dali

A shortcut explanation is the eye and brain work like a sophisticated scanner, breaking down what we see into a grid of pixels which have comparative values.  This synaptic indexing is the process which enables us to screen, filter and act on what we see, it’s similar to a data driven algorithm that predicts the initial impact of imagery.

Dragonfly is a truly inventive piece of software. It replicates the human brain function of immediate visual analysis, splitting an image captured in real time into a series of pixels. An algorithm then applies a formula modelled on the exact cognitive formula the human brain applies every day.

The Birth of Venus | Sandro Botticelli
The Birth of Venus | Sandro Botticelli

Black Swan’s co-founder Hugo calls this moment of captivation The Micro Moment of Truth -the split second before our well conditioned brains decide to filter in, or out, content for consumption. This has never been more important than with the volume of visual content we are exposed to as consumers.

We’ve being using the tool in a series of digital pilots, with unbelievable success in terms of improving the ROI of traditional customer journeys.  But we decided to put our grandmaster hypothesis to the test by running a series of iconic images through the tool to create a gallery of saliency, the results are both stunning and give us a little peak into the secrets of the old masters.

The Last Supper | Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper | Leonardo da Vinci

Mark Bainbridge is Business Development Director at Black Swan Data