Beyond "Pictures" and "Words"

Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young.

….go the lyrics to a recent pop song. Show me a picture that could convey that, let alone the 988 other words one could easily add to clarify the point. Funny thing is, there’s no need for more words. Your mind is only too ready to fill in the blanks. You might, on the other hand, need 988 or more still images just to cover the basics.

The point is, the division the mainstream makes between word and image is meaningless. Language is imagery. Words are a map of the external world, just as surely as images inevitably convey “data.” Take this image, for example:

…and tell me it doesn’t call up a nexus of sensory data in every quandrant of your brain. 

So while a picture may stand in for 1000 words, it’s only because, inherently, we think in words and pictures, together, simultaneously.

A prison of reductive dichotomies. 
On this point, I’m clearly in the minority. So ingrained is the unexamined assumption that images have a more powerful grip on our minds than words, you can even find people willing to say “words don’t exist.” Underlying this train of thought is the American penchant for all-or-nothing analysis. Today, as the addiction to electronic gadgetry continues to replace a coherent worldview with a disjointed “screenview,” there’s even more fodder for belief in reductive dichotomies:

Words: Intellectual, manipulative, restrictive, dry, unimaginative, confusing, evil
Pictures: Emotional, honest, open, bright, creative, clear, good.

Among the many problems with this train of thought is the equation of “words” with “language.” Whereas people may well have trouble remembering a random string of individual words, it’s clear from everyday conversation how well people remember entire verbal exchanges as exemplified by a common phrase:

Can you believe he said that?

In fact, conversations about previous conversations are the meat and potatoes of everyday social interaction. Even if each word isn’t remembered verbatim, you’ll find the sense, the contour and emotional impact of the conversation remains firmly etched in your mind. Now, was that conversation carried out in jpegs and mpegs? No. It was spoken in language, the most precious human technology of all.

Natural intelligence. Artificial boundaries
So as you evaluate copy for your promotional materials, know that your first task is to stop yourself from thinking about words and images as separate entities. More than two sides of the same coin, words and images are two facets of the vast array of data we process every second—without giving it a thought.

To put this into perspective, try a simple experiment:

• Switch off your phone and walk away from the screen. 
• Find a pencil and paper 
• Clear your mind and, just this once, live in the moment 
• Watch yourself every step of the way as you walk over to flip on a light switch
• Make a mental note of every sight, sound, odor, emotion and tactile sensation

When the light switch is on, grab the pencil and paper: write down every word   association, draw every image that popped into your head during the process, without editing or embarrassment.

What you’ll end up with is the sketchiest of sketchy maps of our human thought process. That is, if you don’t run out of paper first.

Vivid, memorable: real. 
Do this thought experiment once and you’ll realize there’s no point in approving copy that calls nothing more to mind than the image of a harried copywriter hunched over a Macbook Air in a dismal coffee shop. The mere fact that such copy might contain no factual errors, be legally sanctioned or certifiably inoffensive is not enough to recommend it.

Instead, the true measure of promotional copy is its ability to alter consumer perception of your product. By the same token, design imagery consisting of a series of visual clichés is not memorable enough to convey your brand message.

What’s to be done? The answer isn’t about selecting the stock art more thoughtfully or setting your copy team free of your outmoded ideas of grammar, style and conversational diction. The solution to the word/image dilemma is to conceive both as one unit from the start.

To do that, you’ll need to give project ownership to your creative team and leave them alone to find a fully integrated creative platform, in which the artificial boundaries between one aspect of the digital medium and another have been utterly erased. Scary? No. Merely a human form of communication of the caliber you take for granted—every time you say “I love you.”


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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