Our Thoughts

Words & Pictures in Communication

30th July 2018

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so it's said. It's probably true that all of us should be prioritising visual storytelling more, but just how far does that go?

I had an interesting brief chat on Twitter the other day about words and pictures:


There's no question that good visual communication is powerful. The picture superiority effect describes the tendency for pictures to be more memorable than words, and it is well-established that the use of images in infographics can improve engagement and recall of key information.

Pictures communicate with a visceral immediacy that words lack, but they're also prone to ambiguity. Paulo Gaudiano puts it well in this Wired article:

"However, just as words cannot really turn into pictures, pictures cannot replace words in terms of their ability to convey clear, (mostly) unambiguous information."

So what's the answer? We need to learn to use words and pictures in combination, using each of their strengths to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Connie Malamed in her excellent book Visual Language for Designers says

"...memorized information is more likely to be retrieved when it is stored in both visual and verbal form. That is why associating graphic with text or using an audio track with an animation can improve information recall."

This is exactly what we try to do with our infographics and animations.

Who does it really well? I think three places to look for best practice in combinining words and pictures are film, comics, and infographics produced for print media. In the last category, one of my favourites is Stephen Biesty, whose brilliant cross-sections were used in a series of books for Dorling Kindersley. Like the example below, the combination of words and pictures is unrivalled for explaning how things work:


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