Does a picture really speak a thousand words?

I started this post a few weeks ago but was reminded of it yesterday when talking about the use of images versus copy in advertising. My Dad runs his own business and I recently created a new ad for him to run in the local paper. The advertising person from said local paper had advised him to use ‘five or six images’ in the upcoming ad…in a space measuring 10cm by 10cm. Five or six images?! No way I told him. One or two at best coupled with some engaging copy to encourage people to come down and visit his new kitchen showroom. He called me yesterday to say he’d had a lady come and visit him having seen the ad. It was the copy about his location that had caught her eye as she’s looking for a kitchen but hadn’t realised his showroom was there before.

David OgilvyThe great ad man David Ogilvy was an exponent of using copy in ads, not just images. One of his famous quotes was that ‘It has been found that the less an advertisement looks like an advertisement, and the more it looks like an editorial, the more readers stop, look and read. Therefore, study the graphics used by editors and imitate them. Study the graphics used in advertisements, and avoid them.’

So one view from an advertising and marketing perspective, is that no a picture doesn’t really speak a thousand words. However, if you look at an image like the Nike logo, this is a picture that actually conNike logoveys a lot without needing any text. It communicates Nike’s brand to me and I associate words with it like sport, performance, power, training…and possibly overpriced!

elearning network logoBut this post was originally inspired by some controversy at the last eLearning Network event when one of the speakers, Richard Middleton, talked about the use of images and animation in e-learning. Richard discussed using visuals to engage learners and advocates the use of motion on screen to hold their attention. Almost immediately after he said this, people in the room began to disagree and there was a bit of debate on this point.

Overwhelmingly the feeling in the audience and on the back channel was that whilst visuals and animations are great, there needs to be a purpose for including them. They must mean something and help illustrate a point – not just be included for the sake of it or to make the e-learning look pretty. I know there is a lot of disagreement about learning styles, but for the way I learn, text and copy is important. Although I am quite a visual person, diagrams don’t tend to mean much without explanatory text and movement on screen certainly distracts me from any text that might accompany it. Having said that, I don’t want to look at a screen just filled with a big block of text.

John MedinaIn John Medina’s Brain Rules he states that ‘we don’t pay attention to boring things’. So we need to use tools like animations to make things interesting right? Well not necessarily according to Mr Medina, or not willy nilly at any rate. As Rob Hubbard pointed out in his session at the same event, ‘we are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.’ Instead, Medina suggests ‘changing gears’ by interspersing blocks of information with things that give our brain a break, like animations or video.

Medina encourages the use of visuals. As humans we are excellent at processing visual information and ‘various studies show that recognition doubles with for a picture compared with text’. But if a picture has no meaning or context, then what’s the point in us remembering it?

Ultimately for me, it depends on what the e-learning is trying to achieve. Do you just need to communicate some basic information? If so, maybe a straight PDF resource that people could download and read would be better than bothering to create an e-learning course in the first place. But if the aim is more complex such as teaching people how to use software or follow a particular process for example, then animation and visuals within an e-learning course can be a very effective way of doing that.

Of course I recognise that advertising and e-learning are different animals. But the point of engaging people is common to them both. I have to say writing this has made me realise that I rarely use images in my blog posts so today I’ve included some which are hopefully relevant! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the use of images and animation and their effects in your experience.



About kategraham23

Start-up founder, writer, connector, librarian's daughter. Interested in learning, HR, technology, online, media, marketing, fashion and cricket. Not always in that order. The views expressed here are solely my own and do not reflect the thoughts and opinions of the company I work for currently, or those I've worked for in the past.
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4 Responses to Does a picture really speak a thousand words?

  1. Nice one Kate! I went the other way in my WOLCE presentation in September – all pics, no text, and occasional breaks for voting and seeing the graphs update in real time onscreen. All well and good, and seemed to be well received in the room. However, I was then asked to make my presentation available to the organisers to publish as a resource after the conference. Dilemma! With no text on the slidedeck, what was the audience who were not at the conference to take away from my presentation? I sent it in with my script added to the notes pages. To date, I haven’t seen any of the speaker presentations published so I don’t know if that has worked or not. But on reflection, and taking your good advice above, at least one or two of key points in text per slide might not have gone amiss on the day – and would have also been available thereafter.
    Whe I blog ( I always include at least one relevant photo – sometimes taken myself, for authenticity and as a way of enhancing the content. Thanks.


  2. nnetta says:

    I think that using images depends on several things: your message, the medium you’re using (press, TV, online, radio, etc) and who your audience is. What I’ve learned from journalism and PR is that in fact the image can say a thousand words, but it has to be the right one, the one that actually ‘speaks something’.
    I can’t tell much about images for e-learning, although it’s always easier to engage in learning when you have visuals and not only text in front of you. I think people are changing and we struggle when we have to go through pages of study materials. If you can use an image that can spare us going through a 1000 words, that’s so much more encouraging.
    Have a look at our blog as well 🙂


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