Wednesday, June 4

The Written Word Is More Visual Than You Think

A recent article in The Guardian recalled a 1974 study conducted by Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer. The psychologists asked students to watch a video clip that involved a multi-car pileup.

After watching the video, two-thirds of the students were asked one of two questions: How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” or “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” The other third, the control group, wasn't asked a question after watching the video.

When the students returned to the lab a week later, they were asked if there was any broken glass around the accident. Surprisingly, students didn't recall what they saw in the video. Rather, more students recalled seeing broken glass if the word "smashed" had been used in the question. Less students recalled seeing broken glass if the word "hit" was used or if they were not asked a question.

"If you can't draw, you can't think."

The first time I heard the quote it was part of a presentation delivered by Josh Ulm, director of product design at Adobe, at a leadership retreat for AIGA. It wasn't until later that I discovered an earlier manifestation of the quote in an article written by Michael Gough, who also works at Adobe.

Where the quote originated doesn't matter, but it was one of several that really stuck with me. There is some truth in it, given that drawing acts as a bridge between the inner world of imagination and reason and the outer world of communication and sharing. But it's not the only bridge for our brains.

There is increasing evidence that writing helps us think too, but not always the kind we're used to in a post-penmanship world. Although Common Core is notorious for wanting to kids to rely on keyboards earlier, some studies suggest handwriting is extremely important to the learning process.

It makes sense. When we stop trying to divorce writing and drawing, we quickly remember that they are akin to each other. They are akin through handwriting, which opens the same cognitive thought process that drawing does. They are akin in graphic arts through typography. And they are akin in communication because they can both provide context or change our perception.

We don't even need to rely on a study to know it. If you ever had a friend call for a caption contest, you already know that whatever photograph is shown will adapt to whatever line of copy we give it.

The future of communication is a mixed medium

While there is an increasingly persistent conversation that attempts to separate language from art and art from language, the opposite holds true. The best artists know the title can be just as important as the painting. The best writers remember that the words leap off the page when they are vivid.

Just as it is impossible to pick between Sunflowers by Van Gogh over The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (or Pythagoras over Beethoven), it is impossible to separate art and language when they are so often the same. And in knowing this, we might work harder to teach our children the importance of writing and handwriting and drawing and painting and music and photography in the greater context not only of communication, but also in our ability to think and then share our thoughts.

It's only when writers recognize the structure of their content matters and artists recognize their work is a language or perhaps several languages that either elevate the experience, expression, or object of their communication. John Dewey once wrote (Art as Experience, 1934) about art by saying: "Because objects of art are expressive, they are a language. Rather they are many languages. For each art has its own medium and that medium is fitted for one kind of communication. Each medium says something that cannot be uttered as well or as completely in any other tongue."

And the takeaway? Merely flipping the medium for more attention is not an answer. Sooner or later you have to pledge yourself to stop making boring art, whether or not that art is a vibrant painting or handful of words scrawled across the page. Sooner or later, we have to recognize that every skill set (typing and handwriting and drawing and coding) can be an important part of the experience — our own and the one we invite others to share as an experience or expression. Good night and good luck.
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