Saturday, May 13, 2006

Is the Visual Overcoming the Written?

“We recognize that the use of image and icon is fast displacing the written word as the dominant communication system of our culture—a trend easily identified when Nike can strip its name from the swoosh icon without losing an ounce of brand recognition or equity—but we fail to perceive what the new iconic symbol system truly has the capacity to do and undo.” –Shane A. Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Media

I understand Hipps' point about understanding what icons can and can't do, but I disagree with him on two points: (1) that image is a stronger communication system than the written word in today's culture, and (2) that the power of image and icon is something remotely new.

As to the first point, with email and IM and blogging and all the rest, many of us are writing and reading more than ever before. It doesn't mean we're writing and reading high quality material all the time, but we're writing and reading a lot. Image and icon are strengthening, but that doesn't mean they're overcoming writing. And that's important to remember.

Which brings me to my second point. Image and icons have always had power. In fact, before we had the printed word, most people only ever learned through image, icon and auditorially. So the Nike swoosh without the words is hardly a new concept--in fact, it's a very old one. And the thing is that I'm not sure the power of image has lessened over the years. Even in writing, we use imagery all the time. And although that's different from actual images, it evokes them in our heads.

So images have been around for a long time. And writing isn't going away. That doesn't invalidate Hipps' point, but it certainly raises questions in my head about it. I do wonder what new things are happening with icons, images, and the written word--I think it's quite possible new things might be happening with them. But the media themselves are hundreds of years old, and neither of them is going away.

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