Why Visual Marketers Should ‘Always Be Knolling’

The technique speaks to how consumers’ brains work

Apr 20, 2021

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  Though you might not be familiar with the term, you most certainly know knolling.

Knolling is flat lay photography, which captures objects arranged on a flat surface from directly above. (Visualize someone sprawled on the ground surrounded by a week’s worth of groceries.) It permeates visual forms we experience frequently – from cookbooks and photography collections to infographics, fashion blogs, social media platforms and advertising.

In advertising, Maryland Smith’s Michel Wedel says knolling can uniquely tap into how consumers’ brains process visual information. “It is a style of imagery that allows for quite a bit of originality and complexity,” he said in a recent edition of Curious Minds, a podcast produced by Domestika, one of the world’s largest online communities for creatives.

Such implied creative freedom commingles effectively with knolling’s rigid rules about keeping objects at precise, right angles to reduce spatial complexity and to increase the visual focus on the objects, said Wedel, Distinguished University Professor and PepsiCo Chair in Consumer Science. “This makes the flat lay images much easier and faster to process, and this is especially important in social media, where exposure durations are very short.”

Knolling’s significance in this area is further underscored by the proliferation of social media sites dedicated to images. “The likes of Flickr, Tumblr, Pinterest, Reddit, Instagram, YouTube and Tiktok have grown tremendously in recent years, and so have their user bases,” Wedel says. “This has created tremendous opportunities and challenges for visual marketing.” And a major challenge is visual clutter. “The overwhelming quantity of images [on social media platforms] makes it more difficult to stand out. With increasing visual clutter and decreasing consumer attention spans, for brands it becomes critical to get attention rapidly.”

Knolling also is a relatively new phenomena – coined in 1987 by a janitor in architect-designer Frank Gehry’s workshop who, at the end of every workday, organized his tools and materials at right angles to mirror the rigid angles and clean lines of the Knoll furniture produced in the shop. The term, and the art form, took off in popularity after 2009, when sculptor Tom Sachs adopted “Always be knolling” as his studio mantra.

Wedel studies the use of statistical and econometric methods to better understand consumer behavior, particularly through eye-tracking analysis and visual marketing. His research, amongst others, has shown that originality in advertising prompts consumers to look at ad images longer, to “like” them and to pay attention to them even after repeated exposure. This, Wedel says, factors into knolling’s style of imagery trending upward in visual marketing and among creative professionals.

For more about knolling, including more insights from Wedel, listen to Always Be Knolling.




About the Expert(s)

Michel Wedel was named a Distinguished University Professor in July 2015. He holds the PepsiCo Chair in Consumer Science at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. His main research interest is in Consumer Science: the application of statistical and econometric methods to further the understanding of consumer behavior and to improve marketing decision making. Much of his recent work has measured the effectiveness of visual marketing using eye-tracking technology. He teaches models for Marketing decision making for MBA students, advanced Marketing analytics for MS students, and Bayesian statistics for Ph.D. students.

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