The Right Words Are Worth a Thousand Pictures

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August 24, 2011 by bradcharlesbeals

I recently heard this narrow slice of our modern era—the late 20th, early 21st century—described as the age of image. The notion behind it being that our use of information is primarily image based rather than word based.

It’s not hard to see how this is true. Consider that in the last century we’ve seen not only the advent of digital media, but—going waaay back—of picture books for kids and pop-culture magazines that have had their verbiage squeezed out, a little each decade, by images. Our children today, and for the last couple of generations, really, have been raised, educated, pacified, and entertained with images.

This would seem to speak to the old proverb that a picture is worth a thousand words. But is it? The answer, of course, depends on the words. For example, one picture cannot express…

  • a mission statement
  • your epitath
  • a website’s terms of service
  • a knock-knock joke
  • what Emily Dickinson can with 10 words
  • the simplest legal document

I understand what the maxim means to say. That some pictures—pieces of photo journalism come to mind—communicate ideas, truths, impressions that could not be captured in the same way with words. I don’t dispute that. But there’s a kind of job that images can’t do. They can’t argue. Not really. Images can’t present claims. They can’t reason syllogistically. They can’t sequence premises, conditions, and conclusions. For communication that compels a reader to action—whether the action is a change in thought or a purchase—we need words.

I am not proposing that words are better than visual images. That would be like saying trees are better than clouds; each has value within a particular context. And the context in which words have greater value is that of human thought and expression.

So we can call this the slice of history whatever we want, but one thing’s for sure, we’ll use words to do it. And unless our brains start working differently, words are here to stay.

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One thought on “The Right Words Are Worth a Thousand Pictures

  1. authorkaciehunt says:

    I could not agree more and while I see the need for pictures, art and the like, I can also see the negative to omitting the written word.

    It is kind of like teaching a child to use a calculator, instead of traditional methods, to decipher math problems and then administering a test to them in which they are not allowed to use it to decipher an answer. These same kids are the people who grow up to work in retail and finance and cannot count back money to the average customer. How sad!

    I think the Gestalt theory states it plainly enough: “The whole is more than the sum of it’s parts.” Therefore, one should provide the complete package in an attempt to create and produce a well-rounded individual and overall learning experience.

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