Early man likely shared stories orally. These stories would eventually become text. But, images probably came before written text. While the exact purpose of these visuals remains unclear, certainly one can assume that the original audience was able to garner meaning from looking at the images.
This is not surprising if you think of life. From the moment most people open their ideas to the moment they start a dream, our brains are inundated with visual imagery. As babies, we can read images long before text. Everyone, on some level, has an incipient level of visual literacy, or the ability to connect images to socially-coded meaning.
The caveman in us was very adept at understanding visual stimulate—their lives depended on it. In fact, our brains are faster at making sense of visual stimuli. We can make sense of visual information in an estimated 1/10 a second. Another study indicates that we can make sense of visuals 60,000 times faster than making sense of a text.
What changes have occurred in the last decade, or so?
The success of visual content is predicted on this natural predisposition. Our society went from a fairly slow rate of visual production until the invention of the printing press, at which time we could speed things up considerably. The explosion of affordable, mass-produced imagery must have been astonishing. Cameras, television, and the internet saw concomitant jumps in the number of images produced and shared. But, the last few years have seen an unprecedented increase. While an estimated 3.8 trillion photos were taken in all of from 1939 until mid-2011, 1 trillion photos were taken in 2015 alone.
There are a number of drivers of this growth. Data is cheaper. Smartphones and tablets have a very high diffusion in society. Visuals are ever cheaper to print, like in print on demand book.
And, the appetite seems to be growing. Video, for example, is expanding (though its success is arguable). From the content producer end, video makes sense. Forrester Research suggests that one minute of video is worth 1.8 million words. Most social media apps see a major uptick in engagement when images are attached. Images drive nearly 60% of all digital impressions.
Why use visuals? Why think harder about visual interpretation?
Basically, we do better at visual interpretation, because this is something our visitors value. Period. But, if you want to drill down, visuals are good at:
- Showing context of objects
- Showing interrelationship between subsidiary parts
- Giving authenticity to ideas
- Showing relative scale of items
- Explicating complex systems
- Showing step by step information
- Drawing attention
What needs to change in museums?
First, we need to understand that increasing visuals in our interpretation is in no way devaluing our collections. We can maintain the authenticity of the originals, and the joy of looking at the real dinosaur bone, say, while still increasing the rigor and quality of visual interpretation.
In just the last couple years, social media has indicated the importance of visuals to drive growth, like the expanding market of Instagram or the dominance of Facebook. Google is setting some real money into visual search. Already 1.2 Billion images are uploaded to Google Photo every day. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are low-text immersive technologies predicated on images. The future uses of AR and VR remain enticing. All in all, advances of technology support image-first or highly image-based content.
The continued growth in image-based technology is driven by people’s consumption. While the general populace consumes more image-delivered content, our curators, and other staff, i.e. those who determine the tone of communication, are trained largely using text and testing their knowledge with text. Therefore, we naturally use text to describe images, but we aren’t predisposed to use visuals to define images/ visual collections. We are also likely much higher consumers of text than the average visitor.
Additionally, our visual communication is often disconnected to that which our visitors consume other places. Our visitors have very sophisticated visual literacy. They decode visual in marketing, often visuals that stand alone or have little subsidiary text. They see 5,000 branded images every day. They get 11 million bits of information every second.
In other words, our visitors are basically immersed in visual decode constantly. Even with these visually-literate consumers, we use visuals sparingly as a field, or rather, we use text as the primary. Some fields are better at using visuals, like science and natural history museums. This might be in part due to their training, where the illustration is a long-standing element of learning and teaching.
I remember when I was working on the content for Gallery One, my most striking lesson was the way that imagery was the best way to show context. Images are how we see context in our own life, so of course they are the most nature way to show context from history lives. I could talk about fibula until I was blue in the face or I could just show you this image:
Overall, we still remain text first. And, this is a major problem. We need to make sure to think of visuals and text as an interpretation package. Our visitors are using visual and text together to make sense of our collections; our interpretation doesn’t alway help support this. Therefore, we need to be strategic in the ways that we use this. We need to make sure to think of visuals and text together, without either being subsidiary to the other.
Remember, in the world outside museums, images are definitely on equal footing with images, if not central in most of the content that our visitors consume. Sharing content that resonates with the norms of society is ultimately the way for museums to remain relevant.
I placed the visual summary here. Reflect on your experience accessing this information visually as compared to the textual approach above:
This is the fourth in a series of posts about considering Interpretation and Content to Meet Today’s Visitor’s Needs.
Are Museums Writing for Today’s Audience? Looking at the Changes in Literacy & Knowledge-Creation in Society
Labels in the world of Information Overload
Interpretation, Content, and the Use of Text in Museums