Many of us couldn’t specifically pinpoint the first moment it happened, but any of us living in American life post-1930 have at one time or another fully mistaken a picture for a word, or more particularly a photograph for one. I know we all have a flashcard illustration or something we saw in a workbook early in our education somewhere in our brain that floats up whenever we are sifting for the word “apple” or “tree” or “dog” or many other basic terms that we carry with us to successfully navigate our daily verbal lives. Later in our memory, and quite likely in a way that seemed so commonplace that we didn’t think to remember it, we did the same thing with a photograph we saw in a book, or an ad, or on television, or a billboard, or etcetera, etcetera, etcetera throughout our lives.
We talk about the frustrations and problems of living in what many refer to as a post-literate world (probably more accurately termed a world post-printed word) and I suppose I’m here to say that life on the other side isn’t really that terrible after all, even as someone who relishes all that the written word has to offer. As a graphic designer and illustrator, my life is spent sorting, analyzing, even creating images in one fashion or another; translating what we might take for granted in speaking and writing into what we hope to understand in an image.
When dealing with youth on a regular basis (and although my career lends itself to focusing on what will impact people of all ages, it often leans towards the younger end of that spectrum) we need to recognize and utilize the knowledge that youth “read” a great deal of information directly through photos and images more readily and quickly than they do through words.
Take none of this as the death-knoll of written communication, but simply as an urging to understand the comforts and familiarities of your audience before you use your own as guidelines for creating promotional/communication materials, announcements, posters, flyers, and other printed material for their benefit.
In short, the kids just love the pictures, which should come as very little surprise to those of us out of our teens and out of college. I think most would confess the guilty pleasure of flipping through a magazine just to look at all the beautiful photos. We often decide what to spend time reading based on the perception of the articles we’ve gained somewhere between the photography and the headlines. We always wanted to look at the illustrations when we were younger, and there seems to come a consistently curious point where we think that there is more information in the written text than in the images alone.
In living a life among pictures, however, I’d like to encourage us all to take a look at those pictures again and again and again, recognizing that what we may have initially taken to be less information may simply amount to information of a different color.
Younger viewers are especially attuned to what images are telling them, often without a full comprehension of everything that they’ve received and understood as a result of looking. This is a remarkable tool that advertising has relied on for good or bad for years. Photography provides an association between a product and an image before our brain has even stopped to consider all the visual linkages just made. Before we know it we’re standing in a supermarket staring at can after can of essentially the same exact product knowing that we want exactly the can we’ve seen in an ad sitting next to that attractive model or in that perfectly mowed backyard or on that table in the French Riviera, and on and on and on. We probably don’t even consciously state this fact to ourselves when we do it, but having bought products of one sort or another because of various associations with them (some provided by advertising and some provided by societal cues) I promise you that there are an amazing number of images that are conjured up immediately upon the simple thought of what I want to drink.
To bring all of this back to a point of practicality: when putting together materials for your group members, decide what you’ll be able to “say” more effectively in an image than in words. Many church announcements look curiously like a circus poster from the 1800s. For those unfamiliar with such posters, they were often nothing but type with a small scattering of illustrations tucked into them.
To live a life fully familiar and comfortable with the camera, put yours to use when trying to attract your group. Couple a striking image with a reasonable amount of imperative and informative text and you’ll have your audience there more quickly than several pages of paragraphs could have ever accomplished.
Grab your digital or print camera and learn to take and use good photos. If you have just a smidge of extra money in your budget, consider purchasing a relatively inexpensive large-format printer (11″ x 17″ printing at the very least, and probably at least $125-200) and generate your own short-run posters and bulletins using full-color photography when you want/need it. Coupled with well chosen type and an interesting font or two, you’ll start to better approach your viewers / readers and really work at “speaking” their language.
We’ve all also heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I might make the argument that a picture simply allows that word count to drop below forty or fifty in most instances. Ultimately word and image used in tandem will routinely accomplish more than either can when used in isolation.
To view Paul’s “artist’s notebook,” which contains several examples of graphic advertisements, click here.
Paul Berkbigler serves as assistant professor of art for Concordia University, Nebraska, and works as a free-lance graphic designer. Paul and his wife Cory live in Lincoln, Neb.
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Published October 2005