More perspectives on visual communications

Wittgenstein, among his various comments about why other philosophers and humans didn’t come up to scratch, said “a picture held us captive”.

Now it should be said that Ludwig meant the comment in the context of his belief that most of us are locked into looking at things in a particular way. Yet, to distort him, for communicators the problem is that most of them are locked into communication methods which don’t emphasise the visual.

In previous items the blog has pointed to how Hothouse Design, Edward R. Tufte, Lauren Murray, the former RMIT head of the media and communications school and others have tried to educate communicators and others about how the visual display of information is critical to making oneself not only understood but also more credible.

SANE Australia, has also been working for a long time to provide services and information to people suffering mental illness. For about 15 years it has run the StigmaWatch program as part of its Mindframe National Media Initiative to provide “feedback to media professionals about reporting on, or portrayals of, mental illness. One of its latest initiatives is to start to challenge the visual representations of mental illness through a program called Picture This survey.

SANE surveyed 5000 Australians about how mental illness should be portrayed. To make the study more effective they employed pix provided by Getty Images with questions about the images provided by SANE researchers. The findings were instructive: a third of respondents thought fair and accurate images should contain everyday people doing ordinary things; a photo depicting ‘pills’ was seen as the least fair and accurate by three quarters of respondents in the survey; and, images of isolated individuals, landscape images and diagrammatic representations got mixed responses.

The media recommendations which flowed from the research were: provide more pictures from people of diverse backgrounds doing everyday things; emphasise the human experience rather than abstract definitions; make sure the images are non-violent; use realistic search words so that tag images reflect diagnostic terms and emotions; and, use a pictorial diversity of experiences. More details at along with more details of the StigmaWatch program.

The blog read the SANE report in the midst of reading about three other non-written or non-verbal forms of communication. In Andrea Wulf’s newish biography of Alexander von Humboldt she discusses Humboldt’s famous Naturgemlade illustration – first sketched after he climbed Chimbarozo (well almost all the way) and published in his book Essays on the Geography of Plants. Wulf says the illustration was a “three-foot by two foot hand-coloured engraving (which) showed the correlation of climate zones and plants according to latitude and altitude”.  Humboldt used this new approach, he said, because “the world wants to see”. In the same vein Humboldt invented the isotherm map as an alternative to long tabular lists. The Wulf book is a great read but the suggestion in the sub title and the introduction that Humboldt is the ‘lost hero of science’ is odd to say the least. Indeed, as well as never being lost scientifically,  Humboldt (and Bonpland and Gauss) were also featured in a recent best-selling book, Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, and the 2012 film (based on the Kehlmann book) with the same title.

Modern communicators often think they have invented things which people like Humboldt pioneered 200 years ago.

For instance, anyone who has visited Potsdam and Sans Souci (or heard about it) will also have heard about the potatoes placed on Frederick the Great’s tomb. There are many explanations of this but one very plausible one was that Frederick, wanting to get his subjects to eat potatoes, surrounded the early fields with soldiers to convince people that they were valuable and encourage them to want to steal or grab them some way or other. Other explanations had him munching them at banquets or planting them because invading troops could ride over them without destroying the crops. But the blog prefers to think that a man who had himself buried with his dogs opted for the more creative one.

The blog recently came across another 18th century example which longs pre-dates nudge theory of how, through not so much showing pictorially but showing and not telling, to persuade people to do something.

The new example the blog came across was in a review of the book by Steve Jones, No Need for Geniuses, which the blog has not read but suspects his reported thesis about the French Revolution and Napoleonic encouragement of science looks a bit odd in the light of Lavoisier’s fate and Napoleon’s treatment of Humboldt. Nevertheless, Jones recounts another potato story about the French pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier – who guarded his potato fields by day and left them unguarded by night – thus convincing the locals to see them as so valuable they should be stolen. He also got Marie Antoinette to wear a bouquet of potato flowers so, as well as being a pioneer of nudge theory, he was also into celebrity endorsement.

The blog of course is not convinced that French and Prussian peasants were that stupid (perhaps deeply conservative and ill-educated but definitely wise in some things– they did, after all, take their pitchforks and sickles to the aristos) but if the stories are not true – let’s print the legend.