The Intentional Impact of Images

We’re surrounded by images, and they’re all trying to get us to do something. The question is, what will we choose to do?

Justin Kemerling
9 min readMar 7, 2023

[ TEDx Omaha Script / Video Recorded November 2022 / Omaha, NE ]

Look, at an image.

What does it say?

When are you seeing it? Where are you? Is it for you or for someone else? What’s the purpose of the image?

To sell or advertise? To advocate or create awareness? To persuade?

The image occupies a middle space between us and an action. An image created by someone with pre-determined goals in mind, put into the place where it’s meant to exist, on a screen or in a magazine; in front of the audience it’s intended for. The image wants to be seen, and then it wants the person who sees it, to do something.

I’m someone who very intentionally makes images. And while I can’t make you do something, the images are designed to influence you. Whether you agree or disagree with what they’re saying.

Take the issue of voting. Let’s look at three different ways the image is trying to reach you; by being silly, motivating, or upsetting…

The image wants you to go vote because voting is fun. Yes, that’s a six-legged cow, we have those in Nebraska. Go vote because voting is fun and Nebraska is fun.

Get excited because voting is easy. A simple flowchart of two paths that asks “Are you going to Vote?” On one side “Heck Yeah” with an arrow to “Great!”, on the other side “Not Sure” with an arrow to “Well…” both sides meeting, “It’s Super Easy, Now Go Vote,” and finally arrows to “YAY!”

Get upset because voting is suppressed. Let’s work the metaphor in this image. In shark infested waters, mazes of confusion and almost certain death, and probably some kind of nuclear radiation, this is our very own reverse-escape room, on a national scale, electro shock, barbed wire, try to get thru that, if you dare! And if you actually do and you forget your ID well then NO VOTE FOR YOU.

The Vote is a fundamental right citizens across the world have fought and died for.

Making it harder to vote for people who might disagree with us is disgraceful. It certainly makes me upset and more likely to support ideas that make it easier for people to vote.

It’s safe to say we’ve all DOOMSCROLLED, yeah? On our phones, zooming past image after image getting hit on all sides by bad news after bad news. Digital marketing experts estimate most Americans are exposed to between 6,000 to 10,000 advertisements each day. How many of those do we process? Do we question what it is we’re looking at? Do we prefer one type of image over another? Maybe we like GIFs more than JPGs because JPGs just sit there, as a boring collections of pixels, while GIFs burst onto our screens and dance.

Images can be super brief, so we get the point in a snap. A simple GIF well under 1 megabyte tells us our planet is on fire. It doesn’t need the almost 3,000 pages from the latest assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We can find that at the “link in the bio” as they say on Instagram.

Images can condense information for greater visual impact. A big fossil fuel corporation acknowledges a tarsands pipeline it wants to build would leak 12 times over its life. An independent environmental study puts that number far higher.

This is what 91 leaks look like as a 24x18 inch poster as that dirty tarsands pipeline cuts right through the fragile sandhills ecosystem overtop the underground freshwater aquifer. And sure, the 91 leaks cited in that study wouldn’t happen all at once or in this close of proximity, but I think one leak is too many, as it negatively impacts the entire ecosystem, so maybe we stop this pipeline?

Images can tell us just the facts by visualizing the data. Comparing two different numbers is sometimes the only way we can really feel them. When a city spends so much more detaining a person compared to educating one, putting the numbers side-by-side shows us where we’re at. Maybe we should invest more in schools than we do in jails?

Images can have a certain amount of ambiguity, making us unsure what we’re looking at, so we look longer. I sat down a few years ago to make an image of a person who is legal and then I tried to make an image of a person who is illegal. Head, body, arms, legs. Couldn’t tell the difference. Maybe those types of statuses should be done away with in favor of a more human-centered approach to our immigration system?

Images can be calls-to-action. Three pandemic years is a long time. Remember when, for the foreseeable future, we were working from home, learning from home, and socializing from home. All through the safety of our screens; desktop, tablet, phone?

The PANDEMIC dominated everything. Everything. But then, slowly a magenta font that reads VACCINATE VACCINATE VACCINATE starts pushing aside PANDEMIC but doesn’t quite get all the way because not enough people got vaccinated, so PANDEMIC pushes back, VACCINATE pushes again. As one force increases the other decreases, one side less when the other is more. Is the back and forth never-ending?

Images push us toward action. End the pandemic. Get vaccinated.

And images travel. This TEDx Talk isn’t a Tweet or TikTok, but maybe it ends up on those other platforms as pieces of content divvied up and disseminated. From a 16x9 aspect ratio (which is used in all TED Talks) cut up into a 9x16 TikTok, maybe a 1x1 square. It’s on this screen now but maybe it reaches a feed on your computer or your phone in the next couple weeks, served up based on an algorithm because you clicked on something like this at some point.

Traveling all the way back from 1937, a map of the redlining of our city. When Omaha, like many cities across America, had red lines drawn around African-American and immigrant communities by the federally-funded Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. Those communities were deemed unfit for investment, systematically segregated from the rest of the city by discriminatory home lending practices.

In our current moment, let’s take those red lines, throw them aside, and see what kind of communities we can design when we work together. What starts on a screen, ends up on a store front.

An image flat and static, can, within a split second of being passed on the street, stop us in our tracks. And stick with us. That’s how it serves its purpose, while it tinkers with our brain. Pulling strings and activating signals, it allows magic to happen in how we think about things. It can reinforce, sometimes change, our worldview. An image is put out into the world and collides with commerce, entertainment, politics, and individual identity.

An image is between us and an action.

On the big issues of the day, unresolved and relentless—the economy, immigration, abortion rights, the environment, democracy… areas where the biggest collisions occur, agreements and disagreements so consequential…

There’s a role images play in our great ongoing American debate whether we realize it or not, whether we like it on Facebook or not. Images should be looked at critically because all images want something from us.

When the mighty dollar isn’t able to support hard working people in our economy, it’s time we raise the wage to lift hard working people up.

When families are at risk because of bad immigration policy, it’s time to keep the FAMILIA together because we all know those sharp tacks around the edges will pop those balloons.

When a stagnant, dysfunctional political system allows kids to be murdered when they go to school, the kids rise up to organize, demonstrate, mobilize — teaching all the adults in the room a lesson in giving a damn. The right to safety is freedom. Freedom is the right to live. Protect Kids Not Guns.

And when a smokestack is pumping pollution into our environment, eroding everything we claim to stand for — life, liberty, justice, truth — we’re left with two choices. Let it erode everything, or reverse course. This image is a warning, frozen in a moment, glass half empty, running out of time, but still a chance where we can choose to turn it all around.

Whether we choose to take all these actions, we should always ask ourselves after we see an image, “what am I supposed to do now?” because all images, not just the ones I’ve made, are pushing us toward action.

A final IMAGE, of blue and red cutout shapes of different patterns on a black background, loosely assembled, forming the word WE in the negative space.

Are WE coming together or are WE coming apart?

WE THE PEOPLE have lived through collision after collision throughout the last 40 years — polarization and pandemics, gun violence and terrorism, great recession, racial reckoning, disinformation, global warming. And as fragmented as we are, WE are still here.

Is a hasty doodle of a six-legged cow going to ensure voting rights are protected for everyone? NO, its job is to get in front us, tell us to vote, and we take it from there.

Every image that’s put out has the opportunity to make a difference, as it collides with every person it comes into contact with in this current American moment.

The image has power and it wants us to participate and to work together for the next American moment. And so do I.

Still, none of the images I’ve made in my career as a graphic designer have resolved any collision they’ve been designed to address. Occupying that middle space between us and an action, the images have done their work.

They have been seen, their perspectives presented. Between seeing and doing, as we consider the actions we will choose to take, now it’s up to us, to answer the question, “what do WE do now?”



Justin Kemerling

Independent designer, activist, collaborator, citizen. Essays from the middle of America.