All About That Media

We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us…Marshall McLuhan

Imagery shapes our understanding and appreciation of the world around us. Once skills for the trained or talented (painting, drawing, photography), imagery, in the form of digital photography, is now in the hands of Everyman. There are 350 million photos posted on Facebook every day.

Images has taken the place of the written word in our post-literate society, replacing the words with logograms, symbols, and icons. With an unmatched immediacy,  intimacy, and individuality, imagery is replacing extended discourse and explication with emotional shorthand. Using a much-abused proverb, in this post-literate environment, every picture tells a story.

Advertising, marketing, and media researchers have recognized the power of imagery for decades. Interpretation comes late to this recognition. For a guerrilla interpreter, imagery is the lingua franca, allowing us to reach across to a general public unfamiliar with the languages of nature, culture, and history.

The following is adapted from John R. Rossiter’s  Visual Imagery: Applications to Advertising, in NA – Advances in Consumer Research, Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 101-106. My adaptation involves simply replacing advertising with interpretation.

Pictures have a demonstrable superiority over words when it comes to learning. A leading explanation of this superiority is Paivio’s dual-coding theory, which holds that pictures generally result in a visual representation as well as a verbal one, whereas words are less likely to result in the former. Long-term visual memory, unlike long-term verbal memory, appears to have virtually unlimited capacity, deteriorates very slowly, if, at all, and shows no primacy or recency effects.

[The order in which information is learned determines how reliably it will be recalled. The first item in a list is initially distinguished from previous activities as important (primacy effect) and may be transferred to long-term memory by the time of recall. Items at the end of the list are still in short-term memory (recency effect) at the time of recall.]

  • Visual content warrants relatively more interpretive attention than verbal content. 
  • Use high imagery (more concrete) visuals rather than abstract visuals. The same applies to words. Low imagery words are more difficult to recall that high imagery words.
  • Use color in visuals for emotional motivation.
  • High imagery visuals work far better than “instructions to imagine.”
  • The larger the illustration, the better.
  • Seek attention-holding illustrations, not just attention-getting illustrations.
  • Place the illustration where it will be seen before the headline and copy (i.e., content)  are read.
  • Attitudinal “wearout” should not be a problem with illustrations but they may lose attention, suggesting use of variations on a theme for broad interpretive strategies. Another strategy is to use imagery on a rotational basis, such as changing out interpretive exhibits and panels on a regular basis.

The following is a helpful infographic developed by MDF Marketing about the use of imagery. Granted, this infographic pertains primarily to advertising. Interpretation and advertising are faced with similar challenges, though. How do we most effectively communicate with our public? How do we best use the media to place information before our public in forms that will be accepted and consumed? To what types and forms of information is our public most receptive? How do we lead people to an action (in the case of advertising, to purchase)? How do we adapt our interpretive lexicon to include visual grammar?

Imagery is often treated as last-minute filler, an afterthought, in traditional interpretive planning and design. The interpretive plan is written, content is researched, and interpretive materials are designed before imagery is considered. The result is a generation of image trolls, scouring the Internet for free, unrestricted images in the public domain. Yet in this world of abundance,  where billions of images are being posted every week, quality is one way to stand out and compete for attention.

Many researchers have agreed that only words and images are used in mental representation. Supporting evidence shows that memory for some verbal information is enhanced if a relevant visual is also presented or if the learner can imagine a visual image to go with the verbal information. One direct implication of Paivio’s Dual Coding theory is that pictures or concrete language (e.g., juicy hamburger) should be understood and recalled better than abstract language (e.g., basic assumption), a consistent research finding.

Guerrilla interpretation embraces imagery as a primary focus for interpretation. An entire interpretive schema can be constructed around a single image. Imagery gives us our most significant interpretive yield (pictures generally result in a visual representation as well as a verbal one, whereas words are less likely to result in the former), and therefore guerrilla interpretation elevates imagery to a position of primacy in the interpretive process.

It’s All About the Images [infographic by MDG Advertising]

Infographic by MDG Advertising