The alphabet of pixels

11 May 2018
11 May 2018
West Lafayette, IN
4 mins

This short piece is inspired by a question from Kaleigh Moore’s excellent weekly newsletter about writing (and occasionally about other things). If you’re at all intrigued by everyday writing or freelancing, I’d recommend it highly.

The question is:

Which is more powerful: the written word or great photography?

Coming from a web dev background, one of my first thoughts was “image files are a lot bigger than text files!” I work a lot on website optimizations (making web apps faster, more responsive, and simpler), and image files are always a pain to work with, because compared to the information they deliver, the file the site needs to push down the internet pipe is huge. So, from a per-byte-of-information perspective, words are far more powerful and concise. Put another way, the written word is an unmatched compression format for human experience.

But then I put my designer hat on, and I thought, “text and imagery do completely different things!” It’s hard to find the words that can stand in for the atmosphere of the Bauhaus style of typography and bold colors and geometry, or the feeling of a sepia-toned country scene in your example. If there were, all my graphic design pieces would just be paragraphs of monospace text! It’s not just that it would take a lot more words to describe it — our language doesn’t have the right vocabulary to express a whole spectrum of visual experiences.

And I think “new vocabulary” is the best way of looking at it — images give us an expanded set of vocabulary from which we can pick the words we choose to include in our writing. A fitting image is just another well-chosen word. The most literal manifestation of this is obviously emojis, where no word can really communicate what 🙃 (upside down smiley) does. It just feels like using another, highly specific, well-chosen word.

Horses for courses

At a lower level, words and images just serve different purposes in a lot of specialized situations. A few days ago, I read a story about a Boeing passenger plane that was accidentally forced to circumnavigate the world against incredible odds. In a story like that, with a rich historical context about aviation, World War II, and details about geography, images are irreplaceable! Having images of the plane, the people, and a map of the plane’s almost twenty-thousand mile journey adds new dimensions to my experience of reading that story that words just can’t.

Images can fill shoes that no number of words can.

But it works the other way, too. It’s impossible to express the depth of emotion and personal connection in The Fault in Our Stars in a series of images. This is what makes writing novel-based screenplays so challenging: words and images tell stories in different dimensions. One-to-one correlations of scenes and devices rarely work perfectly.

Some things are clearly better suited for imagery. Instructions, scientific texts, historical accounts, and analyses in economics and finance need to contain graphics and imagery to tell the full story. Some are not necessary improved by an abundance of pixels: novel-length stories, for example.

The best I’ve come to generalizing this line is this: writing that’s not greatly improved by an abundance of imagery usually tell stories that the audience should own. That is, the story lives inside the reader’s mind. In contrast, writing that is improved greatly by imagery usually tell stories that aren’t owned by the reader, where some other reference or history dictates exactly what happened — like history, economics, or scientific text. In these cases, images provide clarity about some shared reality.

Most writing is some mix of a story that we ask the reader to imagine and experience within their minds, and some idea or information we want to share about our shared reality. I think thinking about this distinction, and where images help, and how, can help us tell more effective stories through all kinds of media.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Learning from the deep end.

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