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Are your pictures memorable? Science has the answer

Are your pictures memorable? Science has the answer

Researchers at MIT have developed an algorithm that can identify how memorable or forgettable an image will be to humans. The algorithm, also known as MemNet, performs almost as well as a real human at predicting a photograph’s memorability. The algorithm was developed by researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

How does it work?

People were shown a series of hundreds of photos, some of which were repeated. They were asked to press a key whenever they recognized an image that they had previously seen. Based on these tests, each picture was given a memorability score. If 30 people out of 100 remembered the picture, then its score would be 0.3. The higher the number, the more memorable the picture was.

Researchers then used this data, along with tens of thousands of pictures, to train their algorithm. The algorithm uses deep-learning, a technique being employed in the field of artificial intelligence to teach computers to find patterns — on their own — within huge amounts of data. After feeding their algorithm the image dataset, researchers asked it to predict the memorability of pictures it had not seen before. It did, and with startling accuracy.

The algorithm produces a memorability score and displays a heatmap over the image that shows which parts of the picture are likely to receive the most attention.

Curious? You can upload your own photos to see how memorable they are.

In addition to being a fun tool, the technology has implications for many fields, including marketing. According to Alexei Efros, an associate professor of computer science at the University of California at Berkeley, “This sort of research gives us a better understanding of the visual information that people pay attention to. For marketers, movie-makers and other content creators, being able to model your mental state as you look at something is an exciting new direction to explore.”

Firms could upload website images to the database and retool those that do not score well to produce a better, and more intentionally memorable, product.

What makes a picture memorable?

Photographs that receive high memorability scores do not necessarily look anything like each other. The categorization is much more subtle, and the researchers admit that even they aren’t entirely sure how the algorithm is predicting what will be remembered and what will be forgotten.

Within broad classifications, images that tend to score highly are:

  • · Unusual images and images in which something appears out of place. Among the ten pictures scored most memorable by the algorithm are a sumo wrestler carrying a snowboard and a stop sign with the word “go” spray painted on it.
  • · Images that evoke suspense.
  • · Images that are intentionally framed. Pictures that have a clear focal point are most memorable. For example, a portrait of a single person leaning against a blank wall will score much more highly than a landscape or city skyline.

Memorability also seems to correlate with popularity. Pictures that received a high number of likes on sites like Pinterest also tended to rate as being easy to remember.

So far, researchers have not encountered memory fatigue. When shown only highly memorable images, people tend to remember all of them better – not just the most memorable of the bunch. This implies that people can be induced to remember more if they are intentionally shown more memorable things.

How can law firms choose images that potential clients remember?

If you have to use stock, amp it up.
Like all creative tools, stock photography has its advantages and disadvantages. Stock subscriptions and user-generated stock sites provide a wide variety of images from which to choose, some of which are quite good, and most of which are cost effective.

However, the easy availability of stock photography can induce image selection laziness. Do a quick search, pick one of the first few pictures you see, and done. Easy. But not distinct. Very often, our team can look at an attorney website and know immediately where the firm purchased the photo and list other firms that have used the same image. Most visitors will not be as knowledgeable about stock, but they will understand, if subconsciously, that the pictures look vaguely familiar and do not stand out as noteworthy.

To avoid this, try customizing your stock. Take several images and combine them to make something unique. Or, combine a good stock picture with custom illustration to create visual impact. Everyone has seen the pictures of a handshake, a thoughtful business person and a courtroom. Dig deeper, get creative and be memorable.

Use custom illustrations or typography to create impact.
Imagine you are looking for a business attorney in Austin, Texas. You do a quick search and click through to a few websites, all of which are using some version of the Austin skyline and the Colorado river in a large banner at the top of the page.

Skyline pictures already receive a low memorability scores from CSAIL’s algorithm. The memorability dilemma is only exacerbated by the fact that everyone is using approximately the same forgettable image.

Then, you come across a site with no picture in the header at all. Perhaps designers have created a graphic using several words in highly stylized text. This will naturally both stand out and pique curiosity.

Supplement custom photo shoots with personality.
Many firms are hiring professional photographers to handle their website photography needs. Yes, you will need a basic, professional head shot. But beyond that, try doing something unexpected.

1. Bring props: If, for example, you play an instrument or participate in a sport, bring your gear and show it off.

2. Dress down: Do not be afraid to wear a cycling jersey or a favorite cowboy hat.

3. Take photos away from the office: Have a favorite spot? Go there with a photographer and get natural shots in which you are in your element.

Choose the unexpected.
People know, basically, what lawyers do. You do not need to show them law books or gavels. And pictures of courtrooms are particularly problematic because they evoke feelings of fear and anxiety in most people. For lawyer website visitors, court is probably one of the last places they want to be. Instead, pick images that reflect your firm’s personality, whether that is a close-up of a particularly cherished item in your office or a portrait in a unique location.

Everyone can be creative

Being creative and really getting behind a unique design strategy is not easy. There is safety in numbers and comfort in knowing that your firm is doing something that fits snugly into the cocoon of what others are doing. It is one thing to hear advice about distinction and uniqueness and another thing entirely to put it to practical use in the real world.

The temptation to take what appears to be a successful formula from someone else and try to replicate it may be strong. But it is, in the long term, a losing strategy.


Kristen Friend
Kristen Friend is a 1999 graduate of Indiana University, with Bachelors Degrees in both journalism and religious studies. In 2003, she graduated from the International Academy of Design. She is a contributor to the Bigger Law Firm magazine, and is the Art Director for Adviatech (Custom Legal Marketing's parent company). When she isn't making law firms look their best, Kristen can be found hiking up Mt. Tamalpais or inventing gluten free baking recipes.

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