Images Of Faces: What Do They Communicate?

Images of people draw our attention. However, different images with different people will affect us differently.

How do we perceive images of people? How do they affect us and how do they affect the way your design is perceived? When choosing an image to convey a particular message are there certain facial features you should look for? Is there an ideal way to crop the image so it communicates best?

Three principles of design that involve how we perceive images of people are attractiveness bias, face-ism ratio, and baby-face bias.

Each offers clues into what your viewers will subconsciously think when seeing images of people in your designs. An understanding of these three principles will help you choose people images that work in harmony with your design.

Photo courtesy of Jesse Yardley

Attractiveness Bias

Attractive people are generally perceived more positively than unattractive people. We have a tendency to view attractive people as more intelligent, competent, moral, and sociable than unattractive people. Attractive people receive more attention from the opposite sex, more affection from mothers, more leniency from judges and juries.

Attractive people are even preferred in hiring and will make more money, all other things being equal.

I hope you’ll agree that attractive people are not automatically smarter, more competent, or more moral than unattractive people, nor do they deserve a better fate in court or a larger bank account solely on the basis of their looks.

However we seem predisposed to favor attractive people, likely due to reproductive instinct.

My guess is most of the above is already known to you in some degree and that were you to pick between two images of people to place in a design you would naturally choose the person more attractive to you.


Face-ism Ratio

The term and idea behind face-ism originated during research into gender bias in the media. It had been observed that images of men focused mainly on their faces, while images of women more often featured their body in addition to their face. This was observed across cultures and was thought to reflect gender-stereotypical beliefs in regards to the characteristics of men and women.

In experiments with college students, students were asked to draw images of men and women and told they were only being evaluated on their drawing skills. Both male and female college students had a tendency to draw detailed faces for men and included more of the body when drawing women. Women’s faces were drawn with less facial details.

The face-ism ratio is expressed as:

the distance from the top of the head to the bottom of the chin divided by the distance from the top of the head to the lowest part of the body shown.

An image showing only a face would have a face-ism ratio of 1.00 and an image showing no face would have a face-ism ration of 0.00.

What’s most interesting is what we think of images with different face-ism rations. A high ratio focuses attention on intellectual and personality attributes, while a low ratio focuses attention on physical and sensual attributes.

People who view images with a high face-ism ratio tend to rate the people in those images as being more intelligent, dominant, and ambitious than the images of the same people with a low face-ism ratio.

Each of the links below will take you to a PDF that explores face-ism in politics.


Baby-Face Bias

Babies typically have round features, big eyes and a small nose, a high forehead, a short chin, and lighter skin and hair color than adults.

We tend to see people with baby-face features as being more naive and helpless, innocent and honest, than people with mature facial features. Hardly a stretch when you consider the previous characteristics are typical of babies. However, we also see those same characteristics in adults with baby-face features.

Baby-face people might have difficulty being taken seriously when expertise, authority, or confrontation are called for.

On the opposite side babies with weaker baby-face features are treated less positively and are even rated less likable than those with strong baby-face features. Premature babies often have a low degree of baby-face features and sadly the rate of child abuse is greater in premature babies than full term babies.

People with baby-face features are more likely to be found innocent when a crime involves an intentional act, though they are more likely to be found guilty when the crime involves an act of negligence. They tend to receive harsher sentences when pleading guilty, probably because of the greater contrast between expectations of innocence and the conclusion of guilt.

Baby-face bias exists across all age groups and cultures. It’s seen across many mammalian species. Baby-face characteristics and bias are even seen in objects.


Implications for Design

The implications of attractiveness bias should be obvious. Because attractive people are viewed more positively, you’re better off using images of attractive people than unattractive people. The images will be viewed more positively and consequently your design, website, and business will be too.

When it comes to face-ism ratio you want to choose or crop images based on the message you’re trying to communicate.

When it’s important to convey more thoughtful associations you want to use a high face-ism image. Crop the image so it shows as little of the body as necessary.

When your design calls for associations with physicality and sensuality you want a low face-ism ratio. You want to show more of the body in the image.

The previous points will be true regardless of gender.

Use images of people with baby-face features when you want to convey honesty and innocence. Consider baby-face images for testimonials where trust is important. Use images of people with more mature features, when you need to convey a sense of authority and expertise.


I think most of us would like to think that we judge people based on things that go beyond physical characteristics. The simple fact is we’re biased toward people based on how they look.

Attractive features are often those more conducive to reproduction and so we tend to view those features in more positive light. There’s a reason why you see beautiful people in movies, on tv, and in advertising.

Thinking occurs in the brain. The rest of our body is used more for physical things. It’s natural that when we see more of the human body we think more of physical characteristics and when see faces in the absence of a body we think more of thoughtfulness.

Babies are innocent and helpless. They need adults to survive. Again it’s only natural that we’d see baby-face features in a similar light even in adults.

When choosing images of people for your next design consider the subconscious meanings those images will convey. Match as best you can the people in images with the message you’re trying to communicate and crop those images accordingly. Like it or not people will associate positive and negative feelings with those images based purely on physical attributes.

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  1. There’s possibly other subconscious isms at play here. I like the ideas, but this page really could use some diversity. No Latinos, Asians or Blacks in your area? You use four examples — three white females and a baby. No men?

    • Karen the reason the images you see here are 3 white women and a baby is because that’s what I was able to find searching some of the royalty free sites I know.

      I chose images that would help make my point from images available to me. Any lack of diversity is due to a lack of diversity in the places I looked for images.

      My bad for not looking harder, though.

  2. Innocent babies…after “Family Guy” and Stewie, I never look at a baby quite the same anymore. 😉

    Good observations. Thanks!

    I’ve learned to look at everyone in commercial images as “actors” or “models” which takes the human appeal factor right out of the display. But it’s interesting to look at a commercial image and try to figure out the nuances they are attempting to convey.

    • Maybe we’ll have to rethink the idea of baby-face bias then. At least for those of us who watch Family Guy. Then again does Stewie really have a baby face? It’s not the usual round face you associate with babies. His head is kind of shaped like a giant eye 🙂

      When you look too closely at images of actors and models in commercials, especially if you’re thinking about marketing at the time you do get a different sense of what you’re seeing. You’ll be more in tune with what they’re attempting to covey, but keep in mind most people aren’t going to be watching the commercial in the same way. They just see a face and react.

    • Thanks. It’s true. I think most of us do know a lot of what’s mentioned here on some level, but it’s always good to understand why so we can take the information and communicate more effectively in our next design.

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