What can pictures do for you?

Unless you’ve been reading the internet with your eyes closed, you’ve probably noticed that pictures are all the rage nowadays. But aside from using the power of pretty as extra bait for clicks, why else should communicators jump on the picture bandwagon? Where does the thinky come in?

Indulge lazy brains

Let’s face it, most brains (like mine) are lazy asses (except located higher, with more thinky stuff). So, if there appears to be a quick and easy thought option, our brains will leap at it, unless we consciously make them think harder. Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman believes this is why we are prone to stumbling over logic problems. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he theorised we have two thought processes: System 1 and 2, which I roughly outline below:
Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow
As you can see, if someone doesn’t know what a circle is, the “a picture is worth a thousand words” cliché applies because it engages System 1, whereas trying to describe it verbally takes more effort to understand. So, if we can present more information in a System 1 way, it will require less effort to understand. Graphics can help us do this.

Overcome language/educational barriers

CyberTracker interface. Source: Geographic Information Systems

Pictures are more universally interpreted than words, so they can make your content more accessible. For example, by making use of symbols and photos in their mobile app, African citizen science project CyberTracker, has successfully enabled native trackers to participate in the project even when they can’t read or write. And a study by Austin and colleagues has shown that patients who have no more than a high school education are almost twice as likely to understand hospital discharge information that had illustrations than without.

Boost memory and understanding

Allan Paivio’s Dual Coding Theory. Source: Instructional Design

We remember and learn more effectively when we sense information as a combination of words and images together, rather information presented only as words. Psychology professor, Allan Paivio, believes this occurs because we have separate memory pathways for verbal and non-verbal (like visual) information, so by activating both pathways, we have a greater chance of keeping and recalling that information.

Enhance your powers of persuasion

Nyhan and Reifler Opening the Political Mind
Source: Nyhan and Reifler Opening the Political Mind

Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have shown that people are more inclined to believe data presented as graphs then text, even if they have misconceptions about the topic. In their study, more Republicans were likely to accept that global temperatures are rising when presented with a graph showing temperature trends, compared to those given written descriptions. Another study, by psychologists David McCabe and Alan Castel, found that people are more likely to believe information about cognitive research if you include an image of a brain scan… so I’ll just leave this over here:

Colourful image result from a normal brain PET scan
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Of course pictures are not superhero solutions to all communication challenges. Without words, images can be ambiguous, especially for abstract but simple concepts like “unicorns do not exist”. And like all forms of communication, the effectiveness of a picture depends on context, knowledge of audience, correct framing and design. I will explore these factors in this blog and provide practical DIY tips for making thinky pictures, from data visualisation to simple illustrations: no graphics experience necessary!


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