On pictures and prose

Last week I gave a talk about business, brand and writing to students on the MA branding and graphic identity course at the London College of Communication. Preparing for a talk is hard work, but, along with many other benefits, it prompts you to think through issues and reconsider points of view. Pondering words and business, I wanted to counter the corrosive myth – still common in design and communications – that we live in an age dominated by images. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ is a particularly irritating variant on this vein of thinking. Of course, there are times when a striking image expresses something in a more powerful or accurate way, but there are also countless occasions when words are an extraordinarily moving or precise media, when words can do more, say more, show more or achieve more.

One reason for the ‘thousand words’ platitude is that many professional communicators think of words as a way to convey hard fact and opinion – end of story. But writing can do so much more than make statements. Words can generate fear and delight. They can inspire laughter, reverence and revolution. They can illuminate, anger and challenge. They can evoke scents, tastes, textures, sounds and movement. They can influence a change of mind, and a change of heart. The psychologist and designer Don Norman captured it well when he remarked: “Stories are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, in one compact package, information, knowledge, context and emotion.”

I’m forever searching for passages of writing that do this. I’m particularly interested in narratives that quickly immerse readers in a world of imagination, where words conjur up mental images and sensations, and those images and sensations draw out emotion. This passage, from Norman Lewis’s book of war-time reportage ‘Naples ’44‘, is an example of what I mean:

‘It is astonishing to witness the struggles of this city so shattered, so starved, so deprived of all the things that justify a city’s existence, to adapt itself to a collapse into conditions which must resemble life in the Dark Ages. People camp out like Bedouins in deserts of bricks. There is little food, little water, no salt, no soap. A lot of Neapolitans have lost their possessions, including most of their clothing, in the bombings, and I have seen some strange combinations of garments about the streets, including a man in an old dinner jacket, knickerbockers and army boots, and several women in lacy confections that might have been made up from curtains. Today at Posilippo I stopped to watch the methodical dismemberment of a stranded German half-track by a number of youths who were streaming away from it like leaf-cutter ants, carrying pieces of metal of all shapes and sizes. Fifty yards away a well-dressed lady with a feather in her hat squatted to milk a goat. At the water’s edge below, two fisherman had roped together several doors salvaged from the ruins, piled their gear on these and were about to go fishing. Inexplicably no boats are allowed out, but nothing is said in the proclamation about rafts. Everyone improvises and adapts.’

There are many remarkable photographs of Naples at this time (the image on the book’s latest cover is one example). Some of those pictures capture aspects of life in a way that writing never could. But few, if any, brew such a heady blend of information, knowledge, context and emotion. And in just 215 words, too.


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