Communication comes in a wide variety of forms; there is verbal communication, such as the spoken or sung word, non-verbal communication, such as body language, and there is audial communication, in the form of music and melody. Yet, in our modern times, another form of communication has come to play a dominating and pervasive role, one that is perhaps often taken for granted or overlooked – visual communication. We are so inundated with photographs, images, and designs to such a consistent degree in our daily lives that, frequently, we fail to consciously recognize the powerful messages they convey to us. This, indeed, is one of the strengths of visual communication; we register it in both a conscious and subconscious manner, ingesting their messages in a way that extends beyond the typical scope of verbal communication. Such is why certain forms of imagery, such as propaganda or marketing, drive us to impulsively feel or behave in specific ways. Visual communication, utilizing the image as communication, not only delivers to us a set of ideas, it fundamentally shapes and connects to our perceptions of the world; that is to say, visual communication makes us look at the world in a certain way, which, we being creatures shaped by our interactions and perceptions of our environment, makes it perhaps the most powerful form of communication available.
It is hard to dispute that we live in a visual world; photographs accompany news stories, and often dominate the newspaper front page; ads and commercials are as much visual events as they are audial; the images on campaign posters, political cartoons, and propaganda flyers control political perceptions and beliefs. In a society where the visual medium is, through televisions, computers, phones, printed paper, and the mass media, becoming an increasingly effective way to communicate ideas to people, we are becoming more constantly and consistently bombarded by imagery. As such, it is increasingly important to recognize the power and pervasiveness of this form of communication. This is especially true in our own context, where, this inundation of imagery being a constant affair, we perhaps have grown complacent of the fact that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Images as communication, then, are relevant to us in that we should learn to more readily acknowledge and recognize them, so that we can both understand what messages are being told to us, and so that we may ourselves control discourses through the use of imagery.
In “Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication,” a primer on visual communication and intelligence, Ann Marie Barry concludes that visual imagery has come to dominate modern discourses. A particularly striking quote demonstrates her argument:
“In print, language is the primary element, while visual factors are secondary or supportive. In the modern media, just the reverse is true. The visual dominates; the verbal augments. Much of what we know and learn, what we buy and believe… is determined by the domination of the human psyche by the photograph.”
The root of the power of visual imagery, it is argued, is in it’s deep connection to the fundamental workings of our brain. We are visual creatures; we come to understand and interact with the world through our visual recognition and understanding of it. We are, for example, creatures who form ideas or draw conclusions based on patterns, patterns being distinctly discernible characteristics of our visual environment. Barry supports this idea by stating:
“Visual intelligence reflects a quality of creative problem-solving that originates in perceptual process and is characteristic of abstract thinking… this logic operates on every level of awareness from subliminal perceptual process to holistic creative thinking.”
Another highly significant point is raised in this statement. Visual intelligence, and, in turn, visual communication, can influence us not only in holistic and conscious thinking, but can influence us in subliminal manners. Images that connect or reinforce our already-existing view of the world are more readily ingested, as they already fit into our visual understanding of how the world works. In effect, we need not even pay close attention to the specifics of the image to accept it, for we have already concluded that it fits our visual registry of how the world exists. Such is, for example, why images of attractive women sell; it matters not what how or why the attractive woman is connected to the product being sold, but the image of an attractive woman itself is agreeable to our visual understanding, or visual desires, of the world, and thereby subconsciously compels us to ingest the message being delivered.
In Chris Jenk’s book on visual imagery as it relates to culture, a significant point is raised: our fundamental worldviews are shaped by the messages and discourses conveyed by images. He points to historical propaganda and feminist discourses to support this point. The anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, for example, was incited by visual imagery of Jews being disfigured, overweight, and greedy in appearance. Drawing a visual association between the concept of the Jew and such images created repulsion in the audience; the audience thus was able to visualize the Jew of reality as such a being, and from that was manifest hatred. Similar, too, are wartime propaganda posters, which regularly depict the “good guys” as strong individuals, performing heroic actions and brave deeds, while the “bad guys” are depicted as filthy and grim, committing acts of barbarity. Even without any written accompaniment, such images can bring us to visually register, and thereby accept, our side as superior, the other side as inferior. Such is the power of visual communication.
Feminist discourses on imagery outline how visual communication has fundamentally shaped our perceptions of gender roles and gender norms, a point which Jenks spends effort addressing. Consider, for example, how unrealistic expectations of body weight, and the body image issues which result, are a result of magazine advertisements featuring individuals of the “ideal” physique. Consider, too, how advertisements which feature attractive women as a selling point create a norm of objectification, in which the woman’s body is perceived by a man as an object for his visual pleasure. From this, as feminist writers such as Simone de Beauvoir argue, is created a culture where sexual aggressiveness and assault can not only exist, but thrive off of normative understandings. Jenks rightfully uses these points to address the fact that our visual perceptions of the world shape discourses, which in turn reinforce the prevalence of the images we are displayed.
It is when we begin recognizing the power of the images which we are constantly surrounded by can we begin to understand how and why we see the world as we do. Again, we constantly take the norms we live in, the discourses which surround them, and the images from and by which they are manifest and reinforced, for granted, acknowledging them as part of our daily environment and routine but failing to see the manner by which they shape our worldviews. Such is why propaganda can be, and has been, effective for spreading hate; such is why images scantily clad women can sell cans of soda and body spray.
To be a good communicator, one must not only be talented at conveying, but also talented at ingesting; one cannot be only a good speaker, but must also be a good listener. Accordingly, to become better students of communication, we must focus our energies on ingesting, registering, and, most importantly, understanding, the messages that images are conveying to us. For everything from television advertisements, to newspaper photos, to propaganda posters, we should ask ourselves not only how the images are making us feel, but why. For such is the choice of the critically thinking, skeptical, broad-picture individual, who not only challenges the status quo, who not only questions norms and discourses, but who understands why the status quo and those norms and discourses have come to be accepted.
Barry, Ann Marie. (1997). Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication. New York: SUNY Press.
Jenks, Chris. (1995). Visual Culture. Kentucky: Psychology Press