In Defense of the Written Word

Is visual literacy a mere polite phrase used to disguise a rapid and spectacular fall in attention span? Are we all collectively suffering from attention deficit disorder? Could we all use some Adderall? Well, no – that would be an exaggeration, but there are reasons to prescribe moderation when it comes to visual literacy.

Today’s consumers are less dependent on the clear (and faux) boundaries of black and white – and more relaxed around the many variable shades of grey that come between. Savvy marketeers know this. They have successfully exploited the value of nonconcrete principles to convey a message and install an emotional response. In doing so they have realized that a consistent and inventive glossary of visuals is non-negotiable. But rely entirely on visual literacy and we gamble with its more traditional counterpart.

A recent article on Fast Company explained the trend of falling word counts, rising imagery and boosted efficiency of online media consumption. Long form begot blog posts, which begot a Facebook status, which begot 140 characters on Twitter, which begot a picture on Instagram.

In addition to this, a 2012 study concluded that when our friends share content on social media, we’re more inclined to pay attention to the pictures they took than the words they wrote. And 44 percent of us are more likely to engage with brands if they post images. Is written content no longer king? They say a picture tells 1,000 words, so if articles have become images, what’s the problem with this pictorial momentum?

In reality, images can never fully eclipse words – rather the two are meant to harmonize in order to cooperatively and effectively communicate meaning. Pictures have almost become the new headline, the new lead to a story. They hint at what the article’s direction, what its thesis may be. As such they help us, the consumer, to decide whether it’s worth our time to read on.

Visual literacy (if done right) empowers publishers, marketers and journalists to ensnare their audience and convince them to stick around. Visual literacy (if done wrong) manifests itself as the complacent belief that a decent snap is enough to mask sub-par content. Word to the wise: it isn’t.

Fast Company, again, got it right with this story. They presented and analyzed a map of Washington D.C. whereby the names of popular landmarks were replaced with TV shows. Congress is Downton Abbey, Capitol Hill is House of Cards, and the airport becomes Project Runway etc. etc. The article itself is peppered with little witticisms you might have missed if you didn’t bother to read – but how many of us would have if the visuals weren’t absolutely stunning?

Imagine the Internet sensation Humans of New York or BuzzFeed without the quotes and captions? It’s a poignant example of refusing to completely abandon traditional literacy, while actively embracing the pixelated frontier. The photos, memes, and GIFs may be moving, humorous, and entertaining, but they’d be totally drained of emotion if it weren’t for the accompanying words. The combination spur the viewer to look for the deeper context, to extrapolate more meaning than a stand alone image would achieve. It’s one thing to be eye-catching – it’s another to be captivating.

Get the picture? Don’t forget the context.

Note: This impassioned defense was written by one of SJR’s tireless journalists who has—understandably—a strong bias for the written word.

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In Defense of the Written Word