How visual, verbal and text combine to improve understanding
The widespread use of emojis has caused speculation that they will soon replace words altogether, as the millennial generation and beyond hurtle toward a new form of communication akin to the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt. Indeed, since they were first created at the end of the last millennium, the advantages of visual communication have helped the popularity of emojis to explode. Currently, more than five billion emojis are used on Messenger every day.
However, not all visual communication experts believe that we are regressing to a wholly symbol-based form of communication. Dr Neil Cohn is one of these. An assistant professor of communication and cognition at Holland’s Tilburg University, Dr Cohn is the author of The Visual Language of Comics.
He agrees that there are many advantages of visual communication, but argues that visual communication will not replace the written and/or spoken word. Instead, Dr Cohn believes that the advantages of visual communication mean that we are likely to use it increasingly to augment the written and/or spoken word to give meaning extra depth, value and longevity.
We’ve always used the advantages of visual communication
Dr Cohn contends that humans have always combined pictures and words, especially when explaining complex issues or discussing difficult subject matter. He considers that pictures are the visual form of gestures when we speak. Ask anyone in the street for directions, and they will point the way as they describe the route to take.
The advantages of visual communication benefit us daily. A few examples include:
- Road signs communicate effectively via the use of symbols and icons depicting critical information needed on our journey.
- Apps on our mobile devices use visual icons and cues to help us navigate through their features and menus.
- Our in-car navigation systems allow us to visualise our route at every turn so we can drive like someone local to an area we’ve never actually been to before.
Visual communication operates in parallel with text
In his book, Dr Cohn describes comics as being written in a visual language – a combination of imagery and text – with sequential images providing detail to the big picture of the story as it unfolds. He says of visuals and text:
“We’ve always been able to combine text and images together. These are not hierarchically ranked systems, but rather work in parallel with each other for the most effective communication.”
Of emojis, Dr Cohn explains:
“I’d imagine that they only replace text when they can provide a supplement, enhancement, or substitution to the communicative message in text. But, they aren’t ‘replacing’ text in any existential sense. Rather, it’s more accurate to say that emoji are now joining text to create multimodal messages. This isn’t something new to human expression, it’s just here manifesting in a novel way for our cultures in interactive exchanges.”
This analysis of emojis succinctly describes the main advantages of visual communication for organisations. It allows leadership teams to describe complex relationships between what is happening inside and outside their organisation – explanations which are often extremely difficult to make verbally.
Visual communication aids understanding and engagement
In schools, teachers are using the imagery of emojis to help pupils understand and engage with one of the most complex literary subjects: Shakespeare. The emojis are never used as a standalone communication tool. They provide a starting point that can be understood, which is then combined with verbal or written explanation.
Visual communication can be used equally effectively in the workplace. Challenges to effective communication in the workplace include inconsistency of communication, over-reliance on technology, and wrongly assuming that employees understand jargon. The advantages of visual communication help to break down barriers. Having a picture that supports the narrative is a powerful way to help people achieve greater understanding and improve employee engagement in vision and mission.
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