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Updated: Mar 18

In a world saturated with information, the ability to identify and interpret so-called "visual weak signals" is an alternative and innovative way to anticipate trends, identify emerging threats, and explore new opportunities. These signals, often imperceptible or ignored, can carry valuable insights about futures in different contexts of society.

In this article, I invite you to explore how images - one of humanity's most powerful and ancient forms of communication - can be fertile ground for decoding signs of the futures.  



Weak visual signals are subtle elements, related to the context of the images, often not noticed in everyday analyses, but crucial for depicting possible future transformations that do not align with already known trends or patterns. Weak visual signals can manifest themselves in a variety of ways, including minor changes in design, variations in the visual presentation of advertisements, transformations in human behavior in images, or even the appearance of new styles and aesthetic expressions on social networks and other media.

In this category of signs, you need to look closely at the old and the new. An old weak visual signal may return and gain new importance, signaling that trends are cyclical, and repetition of the past is more common than we realize. A new weak visual signal, on the other hand, appears as a break from convention, indicating the possibility of the birth of an emerging trend or paradigm shift.

This movement of reinterpretation and the cyclical nature of signs and trends is expressed in the images below.

Photographing relatives and friends after they die may seem morbid these days, but in the British Victorian-era (1837-1901), making images of the deceased — and even joining them in the register — was a way of honoring them and trying to ease the pain of loss. The girl on the left in the photo is the deceased child.

Image: public domain.

A selfie contest with dead bodies, published on the social network Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, is being investigated. The competition offers rewards for the best photographs taken with the dead, in which the photographer must appear smiling because "the dead have left for a better world".

Image: Vkontakte.

In both images, you see photos of dead people and their families. However, sensitive and careful analysis, correlated to the historical-cultural perspective and breadth of the phenomenon, is what directs the qualified interpretation of the signal. The Victorian-era photo is an indicative sign of a shift in cultural and social norms related to death and mourning, which developed into a trend in that period. The photo of the Russian contest expresses an isolated weak visual sign of sensationalism and the search for attention on social media, which seems more like a one-off movement, not yet developing into a trend.

From the examples, it is clear that deciphering weak signals in images is not an exercise without challenges. I recommend that you consider a few points:

• The massive amount of visual data available can be overwhelming, making it difficult to detect and distinguish meaningful patterns from background noise.

• The subjectivity inherent in visual interpretation can lead to varied conclusions. What may appear to be a weak signal to one observer may be interpreted differently by another.

• Trends can come and go quickly. Thus, weak detected signals may become irrelevant if they are not decoded promptly.

Looking for answers to the challenges, I suggest that you learn and put into practice specific methodologies for identifying and interpreting weak visual signals. The image below presents an overview of some of these methodologies. There are many other possibilities if you look for them.



Developing heightened visual perception is vital for you to accurately identify weak visual signals. This process goes beyond mere observation. It is about cultivating in-depth visual awareness.

These specific strategies will help you to strengthen this skill.

Train your eye to identify weak visual signals and anticipate the trends and transformations that shape the future. Go beyond mere observation, delving into the art of perceiving and interpreting the nuances of the visual world.

Expand your visual awareness by immersing yourself in a variety of environments rich in visual stimuli. Explore art galleries, design exhibitions, technology fairs, and the dynamism of cities. Each space offers unique stimuli that can signal changes in cultural, social, or technological patterns.

Develop an analytical mind. Connect your visual observations to broader contexts and understand the deeper implications of subtle changes in design, artistic expression, or consumption patterns. Ask critical questions: “Why is this changing?” or "What does this suggest about future trends?"

Practice regularly and reflect on your observations. Keep a visual journal to record observations and thoughts. This practice sharpens your observation skills and serves as a valuable archive of emerging trends.

Use technology as an ally. Employ visual analysis tools and trend-tracking software to identify patterns that would be difficult to notice manually. They offer a quantitative perspective that complements your qualitative analyses.

In conclusion, projects with weak visual signals represent a frontier for Futures Studies. They have the potential to transform the way you explore and communicate futures, ushering us into an era where depicting alternative futures and preparing for tomorrow are truly unique pursuits.

Would you be willing to find out who the next Jean-Michel Basquiat would be?

At the end of the 1970s, the anonymous young Jean-Michel Basquiat explored graffiti and collage techniques on the walls and subways of New York.

An untitled painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat was sold at a modern art auction in New York in 2017 for $110.5 million.

Image: Untitled (1982), Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Maybe the audience for your trends hasn't yet been born.


ANSOFF, H. Igor. Managing strategic surprise by response to weak signals. California Management Review, v. 18, n. 2, p. 21-33, 1975.

DAY, George S.; SCHOEMAKER, Paul J. H. Scanning the periphery. Harvard Business Review, v. 83, n. 11, p. 135-148, Nov./Dez. 2005.

SCHOEMAKER, Paul J. H.; DAY, George S. How to make sense of weak signals. MIT Sloan Management Review, v. 50, n. 3, p. 81-89, 2009.

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