IMA220511 - Boy on couch with robot in foreground

Convey humanness in images – with brand identity in mind

More and more brands are seeking to convey a sense of 'humanness', not least through their choice of images. This may be a means to break the virtual barrier and reach us on a more genuine level in our current digital landscape. But how do you take the concept of 'humanness' and make it interact with the brand's identity and core values? Often we fall into generic thinking and choose similar images as others. Semiotician Karin Sandelin explains how you can think to successfully convey human dimensions in images – with your own brand tone!

Daily, we see headlines about the rapid development of AI – often portrayed as more threatening than enabling. Concurrently, our touchpoints with brands are increasingly digitised and automated, and face-to-face interactions more rare.

With this increasing sense of distance and an uncertain future ahead, communicating humanness becomes a way for brands to create reassuring, meaningful connections with tangible relevance to the daily lives of their audiences.

More than a generic embrace
The right choice of images can help brands convey a sense of human intimacy and accessibility. To do so in a manner consistent with brand platforms and strategies, it is important to understand not only how humanity is communicated effectively and clearly, but also that it can be done with different tonalities. We easily develop generic expressions for different themes, stereotypical images that tend to be repeated and look similar regardless of the sender. A common example when we endeavour to communicate humanness, is to go for an image of an embrace.

But as a brand, it is important to use imagery that is distinctive and relevant to the brand's values and identity, as well as to the target audiences in your category and market. It may sound complex, but let's have a look at some examples of brands that convey humanness in different, distinctive ways in their imagery.

Human brands, in different ways

The Swedish insurance company Hedvig uses imagery that focuses primarily on people as individuals with a courageous approach to life, in line with their campaign copy "It's just stuff", "Go get in trouble" and "Ride your bike like it might get stolen". Their human angle is, thus, about living life to the fullest as an individual, without being limited by fears or worries. This angle creates a distinction from the majority of our established insurance companies, which rather uses worry to convey a more reassuring identity along with the message that "everything's fine, nothing unpleasant will happen". An intriguing example of Hedvig's imagery shows an arm resting on the back of a sofa, with a long and distinct scar running along the forearm. It depicts human life as lively, where injuries occur. Here, human life is a physical activity, and our bodies are meant to be used.

Australian Aesop skincare is another exciting example of a brand that conveys 'humanness' in imagery in its own way. Here, the person is usually distanced – when they appear in the image, we either see only parts of the body, a distant figure or a person from afar. The light is naturally soft and warm, as is the skin, and 'humanness' is rather conveyed as thoughtfulness, stillness and focus. Here, human life is primarily a mental activity: I think, therefore I am (Descartes).

Keys to conveying humanness with character

As a semiotician, I daily mentor brands in communicating values and meaning. Using semiotics as a method, we can map the codes used to convey something as 'human'. Three important visual cues are asymmetry, irregularity and organic patterns.

We often see them in structures and patterns, such as freckled skin, moving textiles and hair curling in the wind. They offer a perspective on the human being as natural and alive, far from exact perfection, hardness and angularity. Sometimes soft and smooth, sometimes wrinkled and rough.

Three styles of human imagery

In touch with nature

These images use a well-established way of conveying humanness: heartfelt and natural. This type of imagery is relevant for brands that want to express a calming, reassuring, harmonious and stabilising humanness.

IMA153216 - Girl in bed PLAP586M698290 - Smiling woman with wind in hair
IMA34734 - A dad walks with child on beach IMA208000 - Smiling man with smartphone


Humanness can also be something unpolished and powerful, both in terms of mental rigour and physical strength. Here, the human body is more of a tough shield or an active tool. This kind of imagery is relevant for brands that want to communicate a more rebellious, challenging and strong-willed humanness.

IMA43313 - Couple with an angry expression kissing IMSISC12440105 - Closeup of hands on barbell
ETS24139 - Grimacing boy with swimming goggles IMA159726 - Running man


As a third example, humanness can be status, something refined, with almost mystical integrity. A sophistication, but still needing to use the important keys of asymmetry, irregularity and organic forms – otherwise it can easily be perceived as artificial and too perfect, and thus not realistic. Often, it is the small details that push an image over the edge: teeth that are a little too white, skin that is a little too even and faces that are a little too symmetrical. But balanced properly, this kind of imagery is relevant for brands that want to express a sophisticated, exclusive and confident humanness.

MASMA92981 - Senior woman touching her face PLAP427M2285893 - Closeup of woman, half face
IMA28077 - Serious man in armchair IMA172601 - Closeup of yoga mat with female hands

Do you wish to communicate humanness, and do you have a strategy for doing so in line with your brand's positioning and values? The future is likely to see further integration between technology and people, making it even more important for brands to find the balance between the human and the digital. By finding their own distinct voice, brands can navigate this journey and communicate humanness in more nuanced and authentic ways. It's all about finding an imagery that resonates with the brand's tone, as well as the audience's actual reality.

Karin Sandelin

Karin Sandelin is a Semiotician at Kantar and an expert on imagery. She advises many large brands, organisations and authorities in building strong and clear messages and brand identities.

Photographers: Plattform (IMA220511), Dan Lepp (IMA153216), plainpicture (PLAP586M698290), Lena Granefelt (IMA34734), Plattform (IMA208000), Lars Thulin (IMA43313), Cultura Creative (IMSISC12440105), Karin Alfredsson (ETS24139), Johan Alp (IMA159726), Maskot Bildbyrå (MASMA92981), plainpicture (PLAP427M2285893), Olof Hedtjärn (IMA28077), Michael Jönsson (IMA172601), Karin Boo (portrait of Karin Sandelin).