Why is text giving way to visual communication?

Traditionally, two cultural norms have made text the natural way to communicate ideas. Firstly, text has always been easy to produce when compared with pictures and video. Second, we have had an inherent respect for complexity — it’s why academic texts and corporate white papers can be hard for the lay person to read. Today, however, both those shibboleths are being broken down. We can shoot high-quality video on our mobile phones, and the number of tools available for visualising ideas is constantly growing.

Visualize.me is a one click tool allowing people to turn their LinkedIn profiles into an infographic. Canva allows presentation-quality graphics to be produced in minutes; and the Typorama app puts elegant graphics in the hands of people with no graphic design experience at all. Tools like these are being developed at an incredible rate. And as the need to communicate clearly in our world of information overload becomes more acute, particularly in the challenge to be heard above the noise, the desire for clarity has overtaken the desire to impress with depth. People simply don’t have the time to devote hours to individual issues; and if they do, they want it to be on their terms — to choose to examine it in more detail.

The revelation for communicators and brand owners is that for an overview of a subject, visualisation is enormously efficient:

  • 90% of the information transmitted to the brain is visual
  • The brain can see — and therefore begin to comprehend — images lasting just 13 milliseconds
  • The eyes can register 36,000 visual messages per hour
  • We can get a sense of a visual scene in less than 0.1 seconds
  • Visuals are processed by the brain an incredible 60000 times faster than text

Not only are visual communications processed many times faster, they are more easily shared and comprehended irrespective of the consumer’s knowledge or education; making it easier for them to make decisions. This is why everything from car dashboards to airline safety cards use iconography and visual representations to get a message across.

Visualisation also fits our modern consumer lifestyles. In 2015, the Cisco Visual Networking Index reported that mobile video traffic accounted for 55% of total mobile traffic. The amount of total data per smartphone also increased from 2014 (648mb per month) to 2015 (929mb per month). Cisco predicts that by 2019, 80% of internet traffic will be video. The mobile interface is not great for reading text, whereas it’s perfect for video — and a plethora of businesses are starting to use mobile video for education, on-the-job process management and other information-intensive applications.

There are of course risks. In our information-saturated world, it is easy for us to put our trust in elegantly presented ‘facts’ which have little or no validated basis underneath. You certainly cannot trust everything you see online, and consumers will have to be vigilant. But to present rich data usefully, visual cues will become essential. We must simply realise that visual presentations are the tip of an iceberg, under which will be much more knowledge, or very complex analytics to number-crunch towards a visual executive summary. Google, for example, is surely the epitome of big analytics: its music timeline product uses huge amounts of information to help people make sense of musical genres. This allows us to understand key aspects of a subject rapidly, to act on them, and to share them easily, too.