Are pictures more important than words?

The famous saying goes ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’. The origins of this can be found in the early days of advertising at the turn of the last century in America, and earlier in history, Napoleon is quoted as saying “Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discours” which translates as “A good sketch is better than a long speech”. But is it really true?

Personally, I’ve always been drawn to images rather than text, or ideally a combination of the two. When I was young, I was drawn to the classic illustrated picture stories of Tintin and Asterix as the illustrations in these books conveyed a humour and wit that the text could never do. What’s more, as these books are translated from other languages the pictures are universally understandable. 

According to research compiled by 3M (the company behind post-it notes) our brains can process images 60,000 times quicker than text. This can easily be explained with the picture

Which one did you understand more quickly?

 Our brains have around 100 billion neurons in them, a vast amount of processing power. It takes 0.4 to 0.5 of a second to respond to visual stimuli. Much of that time is taken on giving the response, so it’s actually a fraction of that time that is taken on actually seeing and discriminating the image. So we can interpret images very quickly, much quicker than text.

90 percent of all information that comes to the brain is visual so our brains are hard wired to make sense of visual information more efficiently and visual aids have been found to increase learning by 400%. We will learn much more about how a person with a face to face meeting rather than a text or email exchange, or even a phone call, because we are reading so many visual clues.

In my view and, probably because it’s my trade, pictures will always win although that’s not to say that copywriting doesn’t have a place. Good copywriting is all about creating a clear picture in someone’s head, about the product, service or offering being discussed. When drafting copy, we can often produce something dry and use business speak because we think that’s what people expect to hear. Much better in my view to take a step back and really think about how to present the subject being discussed in a creative way, either using copy, images, or a combination of the two.

 For me, the greatest example of how clever and descriptive writing can paint a picture is The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein. I read it when I was a teenager and the ‘world’ it created in my head stays with me even today. It captured my imagination like it has with many others, and it was really exciting to see it transferred to film for the famous Peter Jackson directed Trilogy. Interestingly, when they created the films they drew for inspiration on the work of artists that have been visualising the imagined world of Tolkien for years such as Alan Lee. It was a collective shared vision of this fictional place, making it accessible to a new generation who weren’t inclined to read the book. I loved the films, but the ‘pictures’ the book conjured in my head, and the immersive experience of reading and imagining was a very different experience.

With the advance of technology, images are everywhere. Many of us use pictures we take on our phones and upload to social media to tell a story of our lives, even to the smallest detail such as what we are having for dinner. The images we post will tell others a great deal about us, but as we have editorial control of what we show, we can sometimes convey an over glossy view of our lives which doesn’t reflect the reality. 

Alternatively, if our self-policing in the selection of images is lax and we post something that doesn’t show us in the best light, or that’s too revealing we can do an immense amount of damage to our public image. It’s always worth considering what a particular picture says about us before we share it, this applies to us as individuals but also companies. Considering the earlier statistic about how fast the brain processes images, it’s no wonder that a reputation can be destroyed in a matter of minutes on social media. Nevertheless we lap up the pictures, and on  Twitter research has shown that tweets with images receive 18% more click throughs, 89% more likes, and 150% more retweets.

Sometimes it’s impossible or impractical to rely on photography to illustrate something, a computer generated image is required, or an illustration. These days, clip art is ubiquitous but this should be used sparingly and only when the chosen picture really illustrates the point. 

Finding the right image to suit text can be hard and that’s when designers and illustrators can help – it’s what we do! A brochure, website or app will be of a much higher standard if art directed photography, bespoke CGI or original illustration is commissioned as the resulting image will be much more suited to the product, and also unique.

So, they say the pen is mightier than the sword, but could that mean that pictures are more powerful still? Actually the right balance of both is probably the winning combination…. read the book and watch the film, write good text and illustrate it well!