Images or words: not a simple choice

‘The brain processes images faster than words’, a statement that I’m sure is true, but needs to come with a huge caveat.

Every week there’s another article like this, proclaiming that infographics are the future, and that they are so much more effective at communicating information than mere words (if only Shakespeare had dabbled in a bit of illustration as well). They almost all seem to include a statement like this one; done as a graphic, naturally.

Clearly this is a flawed example. In reality the text would read something like ‘Danger: falling rocks’. I don’t disagree that even these three words would take longer to register than the road sign though, but only because the road sign is something that’s familiar, and so has its meaning well established. And that’s the caveat… 

‘Images are quicker to process as long as they follow well recognised conventions’

The number of truly instantly recognisable images is probably quite limited:

  • road signs and safety symbols are one of the greatest examples of the importance of learning conventions: without explanation, many of them are truly random. So it’s only through intensive study and memorisation that we can associate the meaning with the image (at least for long enough to pass the test).
  • charts and graphs can instantly suggest what they are explaining: pie means the way something is made up; line shows progress over time; bar means comparison over time (although there seems to be a trend to use bar where pie might be more appropriate).

So, writers of the world do not despair. Words (or words with pictures) will still be needed to explain something detailed for many years to come.

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