More than 10% of all the photographs ever taken were taken in the last twelve months. That’s not because technology has changed our instincts. Quite the opposite. It’s made it easy and cheap for us to communicate in the way that’s always been most natural.
According to John Medina, the molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules, the likelihood of us hearing a piece of information and remembering it three days later is about 10% on average. If you add a picture, that likelihood goes up to 65%.
The real power of pictures, however, comes when we combine them with our other senses. The more senses we use to communicate information, the greater the chance that the audience will take it on board and remember it.
Our ancestors understood this long before they learned how to talk. They used to come together in caves deep underground and tell stories by using pictures they had painstakingly etched into the wall. You find this in every aboriginal culture in every part of the world: Africa, America, Australia, Europe, Asia.
Some of the most famous examples are from the Chauvet cave in Southern France.
For years, scientists were puzzled by the repeated patterns in many of the cave drawings: shadowy outlines of the animals and hunters in slightly different positions, as if the artists had changed their minds but been unable to erase the earlier versions.
One day, instead of the usual electric lights, they lit the cave with kerosene torches – and, as the flames flickered, it suddenly all made sense.
One of the researchers stood in front of the wall and moved his torch slowly around. His colleagues watched open-mouthed as the pictures sprang to life: the emphasis shifted from one outline to another, giving the same impression of movement that you get by tilting a flat 3-d image. 15,000 years before Pixar opened its doors, our Neolithic ancestors had invented motion graphics.
Young people entering the workforce today have grown up in a world of visual communication, where everyone has cameras on their smartphones and a choice of social media platforms to share their pictures instantly.
As someone who earns their living from writing, it’s uncomfortable to say this – but, if you’re fighting against visual communication, you’re not going to win.