Are We 21st Century Cavemen and Cavewomen?

Lately, I have been fascinated by the way that new technology is taking us full circle in the evolution of mass communication. We are essentially becoming modern-day cavemen and cavewomen.

If you think back to how early humans first began to “mass communicate”, it was through pictures and grunting sounds. In fact, humans were telling stories with pictures as far back as 40,000 years ago when rock walls were the communication medium of choice rather than something you climb at the gym on your lunch hour. I wonder who the first prehistoric human was to use a handheld mobile device by drawing a picture on a smaller rock that he or she could carry around rather than having to wait for everyone to come look at the static message on the cave wall?

While images have always been a powerful way to communicate, it has never been easier than it is today to communicate visual messages. The ability to capture and create visual images with incredibly powerful handheld technology and the growth of social media sites and apps for sharing them has created a visual messaging Renaissance at the expense of the written word.

There is no doubt that we are using fewer words and more visuals—photos, videos, infographics, wordclouds, memes, etc.—to communicate our messages today than compared to a few years ago. We don’t always communicate in complete sentences or even use complete words. We grunt with our thumbs in an odd new language of text abbreviations, auto-correct gobbledygook and emoticons.

While this is a troubling development to those who believe we are losing the ability to communicate effectively through the written word, is it really a bad thing? What is the right amount of visuals versus text? Is there such a thing as too many pictures? And just because we have all these new visual tools, are we really any good at using them to communicate clearly and effectively?

Here are a few examples of the balance between the visual and written content as we ponder these questions:

Example 1: Print

The French newspaper, Libération, published their November 14th article with no photographsto showcase the importance of visual communication.

Photograph from British Journal of Photography

Photograph from British Journal of Photography

Would you buy a paper or magazine with absolutely no photographs?

Example 2: Social Media

Social media has exploded with pictures and videos to pull the reader into reading more. Recently, even Twitter has adopted the ability to display photos and video. The following two examples help demonstrate the visual power of social media. 

Example A: A tweet from the Wall Street Journal uses a snapshot of the front page to attract visitors on Twitter.

You are able to instantly see some of the day’s major headlines. Does this attract you to click through see the full details?

Check out the second example from Facebook.

Example B: A Facebook post from Safeway using Pinterest images to get readers interested in learning new Thanksgiving sides recipes (and of course, buy those food items courtesy of Safeway).

The truly interesting part of this post is that it blends two social media channels together. Images on Safeway’s Pinterest are used to pull the audience from Facebook. Did it work? Starting to feel hungry?

Example 3: Infographics

Infographics are a popular way to translate more complex issues. These are a true test between the written and visual communication. How much text can actually fit on that map? Is text even necessary on the chart? Check out a couple examples that demonstrate the options.

Example A: The New York Time is regularly praised for their infographics. Not only do people find them visually pleasing and informative, they are often interactive. Below is an infographic done in February to display how President Obama might write the 2013 budget proposal.

Image 1

Image 1

Image 2

Image 2

Very few words are apparent in regards to the graph itself. Text has been provided on the sides to provide context. However when you scroll over the graph, a text box pops up providing the details relevant to that point. If this information were inside the bubbles themselves, it would make a busy graphic.

Example B: Using of a map is another popular technique for an infograph. Below is an example from the Washington Post using color to display population change by country.

There are only 6 words and the color bar with associated percentages to explain what this graph means.

Of these two infographic examples, which did you find more interesting, informative, and visually pleasing? We might not all agree.

The important thing to remember is that there is no magic formula with regards to the right combination of visuals and text. While visual aesthetic is important; the main criterion is audience comprehension.

I think this is something our prehistoric ancestors understood instinctively as the painted cave walls with messages that we are still receiving today. I wonder if 40,000 years from now, internet archeologists will unearth the infographic I tweeted last week and understand the meaning.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the ways you are using visuals in your work and what you see as the next steps in the evolution of how we use visuals to inform, educate, entertain and persuade audiences.