30
Oct
09

"…is worth a thousand…"

[October 30, 2009]

The familiar proverb about the relative communication power of pictures and words has apparently been attributed to an ancient sage, a modern printing press operator and even Napoleon. Whatever. I’ve never bought the thought behind it.

As I see it, “words” and “pictures” are too broad to be encompassed by a simple maxim. More to the point, I no longer see them as separate categories. Both call up images and both tell stories.

But let’s assume we take the proverb at face value. If a picture is worth 1000 words, my question is: Which words? And if we agree that images and words are equally open to interpretation, perhaps it’s the words you associate with an image that truly define it, if only for yourself.

To test my little theory, I took a single piece of stock art and hammered out three concept boards for contrasting product categories. Each one uses a phrase or two of existing copy, just to keep it in the right brand orbit:

Same picture, three different messages. Without a context the picture takes us only so far. That is, of course, until you start concocting your own narrative about it, out of your personal experience.

Now, I’d argue there’s another layer to this issue. Because clearly what’s coming through in these examples—or in any kind of advertising space—is not words and pictures, but an idea.

The only reason any ad gets through to its audience is because it has an underlying premise, a piece of our cultural heritage that rings true as universal. And that goes double for ads that hide out on Facebook in “app’s clothing.”

So am I tempted to revise the proverb to read “An idea is worth 1000 words and pictures?” No way. Behind both and everything we do is an infinite phenomenon we know as our humanity. Trying to reach someone? You can use 100,000 words or pictures, but you won’t get through unless you grasp the human equation.

That takes a lifetime, measured in actions, emotions, ideas, belief systems—and yes, even the words, pictures and gestures we use to get a handle on them.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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