Sunday, February 21, 2010

Citius, Altius, Fortius

My latest quest for knowledge is: why do images sell, but words don’t?

I think it’s pretty much an accepted fact that they do. The expression “a picture’s worth a thousand words” sticks around because it’s true. I’m a writer and I admit that I look at photos before captions. I judge books by their covers.

What is it in our brains that makes us do that?

I suspect that volumes have been written on the subject but, being human, I went straight for the pictures.

Victoria photographer Andrea Kucherawy explained that perhaps Gestalt theory holds some of the answers I was seeking.

Our evolution and survival are based on visual clues,” she said. “Gestalt means that images are first perceived as unified wholes before they are seen as unified parts. In other words, we 'see' the whole before we 'see' the parts that make up the whole.

“A picture,” she continued, “is the unified whole of the parts of a story. We gravitate to the photo before the words because the message is perceived by the brain in split seconds, whereas when we read, the picture in our minds takes that little bit longer to form.”

In order to survive on the savannah, the steppes or the streets, we have always needed to be able to see what’s in front of us and process the information instantly. So the brain likes to get things whole and fast and that’s why we look at pictures first – they give us the image much more quickly than having to read words and build the image in our heads.

In other words, a picture is like a single plank that we can walk across to reach the other side of a stream, while written words – or spoken, I suppose – are like a pile of rocks. We can build a bridge and get to the opposite bank, but it takes a while.

Is our all-too-human desire for speed the reason that “swifter” is the first word of the Olympic motto?

Drat. There’s another question. Does it never end?

Next week:

According to Gestalt: Four elements to consider when composing images, and how they also apply to writing. Because everything relates to writing. Doesn’t it?


  1. The thing is, a photo may show you the bridge and the person who's crossing it and the river under it but words give you a better image: does the bridge creak underfoot? is the person nervous, happy, angry, in danger, fearful? is the water cold, fast-running? are there sounds coming from the woods beyond? A writer's pictures (your pictures) are so much better than any photograph!

  2. I'm so relieved that you pointed this out, Deirdre.
    Yes, writers can add in the sounds, smells, and tastes that photos or paintings can't.

    Whew! I guess I'm not out of a job yet.

  3. I think this is such an interesting topic. Musical form works in a similar way, with rhythm, dissonance and resolution, repetition, solo and tutti, and a bunch of other devices. I remember reading a discussion of this that led back to Aristotle and his writings on proportion, ratio, and the ideal of beauty. I believe this also formed the basis of Palladian architecture.
    Congratulations on delving into this rich mine of ideas!

    - Naomi