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Is a picture worth a thousand words?

My afternoon question for you…

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

This aphorism has been attributed to many sources, from Confucius to an early 1900s newspaper article that discusses journalism and publicity.

Whatever the source, this phrase has me thinking. Is a picture still worth a thousand words? Or has the ease by which we publish them, changed the conversion rate substantially?

While in Hawaii last year, I had a chance to relax with some beach reading. I settled on two Edward Tufte books: Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative (1997) and Envisioning Information (1990). First of all, yes, I am that nerdy. Second – don’t judge – I had delicious cocktails while reading both. These are both fascinating books. If you’re into expressing complex data in visual design, both are must-reads. What I love about both of them (and actually most of Tufte’s writing – despite the irony of how many words he sometimes uses) is the amount of structure and design thinking that can go into an image.

We often think of infographics as the “dumbed down” way to explain a complex concept. In other words, as infographic usage in pop culture grew (such as the “Snapshots” picture in the newspaper USAToday), they became the simplistic way to describe something complex. But in Tufte’s view, these works are the ideal way to (as he says) “represent the rich visual world of experience … To envision information – and what bright and splendid visions can result – is to work at the intersection of image, word, number, art.

This is structure. This is design. This is where content is made intelligent. And this is where information becomes beautiful, simple, and effective.

So, I’d say yes – definitely worth 1,000 – and probably much more these days.

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