Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Belshaw's World - picture a place where the message mattered

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday  16 December 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

I have always been fascinated by the way people think.

Sometimes this has been useful. You cannot sell consulting services nor bring about effective change if you not understand the thoughts and feelings of those you are dealing with.

At other times, this fascination has been a dratted nuisance. When working professionally, fascination with the way people think may be useful, but if and only if it’s controlled. Become distracted, lose sight of the main objective, and things can crash and burn.

Pretty obviously, getting to understand the way people have thought in the past is important in writing history. It is also very hard to do because the present creates a sometimes unseen and often impenetrable barrier to that past.

Today we live in a world of what I call visual wallpaper. Images submerge us to the point that they blur; only the striking stand out and then only for a short while.

In these circumstances it is easy to forget just how recent this emphasis on the visual is.

The world's first illustrated weekly, the Illustrated London News, began in 1842. The first crude colour printing dates to 1843, the first photograph appeared in a newspaper in 1880. This is all very recent.

When visual images were rarer, they had far greater power.

Colour reproductions of contemporary French painters greatly influenced the Australian impressionists. The fact that the colours were in fact slightly wrong was neither here nor there.

I don’t know about you, but I now find the constant emphasis on the visual increasingly bland and boring.

The modern Government “policy” document - I put policy in inverted commas because many contain very little policy – with its generally pastel colours and obligatory photos – is instantly recognisable and just plain dull.

I had cause to look at one of these the other day. Stripped of its photos of happy people, design elements and multiple headings, the actual word count was about the length of this column.

This emphasis on the visual has begun to affect the way we think in a variety of ways.

To begin with, in a world of Photoshop and edited images, we no longer trust the visual in the way we used to. The photo that once was a photo is now a creation.

The process of distrust is slow but cumulative.

A month or so back I used a striking photo to illustrate a story. One of my readers pointed out that the photo had been Photoshopped. He was right.

In this case it didn’t matter to the story, but I was still cranky because I had failed to pick it up. It increased my distrust of the visual.

Don’t get me wrong, by the way. I actually like some elements of the emphasis on the visual because it provides new ways of explaining things. It’s just that, for the present at least, it’s becoming an increasing impediment to real thought.

I discussed some of this in an earlier column on the twittering of English.

In a professional sense, a lot of the work that I do requires me to go to the heart of a matter whether it be a policy or a commercial issue. Time is money, and I need to do this as quickly as possible.

The need to strip out the visual is therefore an added nuisance.

I have absolutely no problem with the use of the visual to aid marketing or to provide entertainment. But when words themselves are the core explanatory vehicle, then visual wrapping can actually impede real understanding.

Maybe you think that I am being too harsh? Well, let me encourage you to try an experiment.

The next time you go to a presentation, a conference or information session where visual aids are being used, focus on the words.

Try to find one simple thing that you do not understand. Then ask the presenter to explain it. You will be surprised as to how often you throw them completely!

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