The Growing Visualization of Our Culture

People only remember 10 percent of what they hear and 20 percent of what they read.

It’s a stark reality that as a culture, we are becoming less literate. But book lovers and avid readers should not be disheartened. As the National Education Association has pointed out, “Western civilization has become more dependent than ever on visual culture, visual artifacts, and visual communication as a mode of discourse and a means of developing a social and cultural identity.”

This is a compelling statement, adding to the evidence that suggests that people not only communicate visually more than ever, they also communicate better when they communicate visually. There is hard scientific data that shows a direct correlation between seeing and remembering.

In a Hewlett-Packard research document, they cited psychologist Jerome Bruner of New York University, who described studies showing that people only remember 10 percent of what they hear and 20 percent of what they read. Surprisingly, about 80 percent of people remember what they both see (as images) and read (as text).

Of equal interest, training materials used by the federal government cite studies indicating that the retention of information three days after a meeting or other event is six times greater when information is presented by visual and oral means (as opposed to when the information is presented by the spoken word alone).

Don’t believe me? Look around you.

Newspapers and magazine look more like web sites than tradition print on a page. As books and periodicals become more and more digital, they’re becoming more and more visual as well.

So, this doesn’t mean that people are reading less, they’re just reading more visually.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Researchers at the Wharton School of Business in Pennsylvania compared visual presentations with purely verbal and text-based presentations. They found that presenters using visual images were considered more persuasive by their audiences, 67 percent of whom felt that presenters who combined visual, verbal, and text components were even more persuasive.

So what is all of this data telling us?

It seems to indicate that while purely visual communication is more effective than just verbal and written communication, the most compelling communication combines all three.

I like to think that these trends are not only a revolution of our global culture, but an evolution as well. As we begin to integrate visual thinking and the retention of multiple languages and text from around the world, we open up deeper opportunities for cultural understanding and acceptance. Written and spoken language becomes less of a barrier when we are able to share a common vision.

A picture is truly worth a thousand words. But a picture with words is worth much more than any of us can imagine.