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Why We Need Pictures With Our Words

Updated: Jul 18, 2020

The move to visual communication and what it means to writers

Cave drawing...Early emoji
Ancient cave drawings in ocher. Shutterstock

Cave drawings.

Over and over. A continuous loop in my head.

The movie that plays in my mind is of prehistoric cave drawings.

Weird, huh?

Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear.(It’s been on my reading list since it came out in 1980. (It only took me 40 years, but it was definitely worth the wait.)

Maybe I’m obsessed with prehistoric pictures because I’ve been doing research on emojis.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been wondering if the movement toward visual communication will overtake the need for words.

Maybe it’s because I’m wondering if the emphasis on the visual is a move backward in the continuum of time, or if it’s a quantum leap forward toward universal understanding.

Picture this.

In today’s world, everything is photographed or filmed. Our phones allow us to record visual details constantly.

Who needs words when you can see everything in living, breathing, color?

The purpose of photography has deviated from its original intent. It used to be an act of memory, something done to “safeguard a family’s heritage.”

Now, it’s not just a means to record events and people, it’s a cornerstone of forming our identity.

We take millions of photos and we publish them for the world to see.

Taking selfies is a national past-time, done to appease our ego.

We want to affirm ourselves so much that we take 93 MILLION selfies a day.

Pictures and images are the currency of communication.

Photographs, emojis, GIFs, infographics, and videos are a necessity for getting a reader’s attention.


It’s all about speed.

The human brain can process visual images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90 percent of information transmitted to our brain is visual.

When instructions were paired with illustrations, people do 323 % better than those following text directions alone.After three days, people recall 10% of what they’ve heard. If that information is coupled with a visual image, they can call 65% more.

Consider the rise of the emoji.

Early in the 1990s, there were emoticons, representations in characters that looked like a facial expression. A sideways face was made by typing 8 -D. (Turn your head to see the eyes, nose, and mouth.) Type a colon followed by the right-hand parentheses for a smiley face. 😊

Oops. I couldn’t even do that anymore. Those characters automatically change to the modern, accepted emoji.

Emojis first appeared on Japanese mobile phones. An artist named Shigetaka Kurita is crediting with designing the first 176 emojis.

These clever little critters are so much a part of modern lingo that the original emojis are now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Original Emojis
Original Emojis on display at Metropolitan Museum of Art

Heck, the word “Emoji was the word of the year in 2015.

(And if you’re wondering what is the proper plural of emoji, you’ll have to keep wondering. No one agrees on “emoji” or “emojis.”)

In 2015 emoji diversity began with five different skin tones, recognition of same-sex couples, and dozens of different kinds of hats. Today, 2800 emojis represent occupations, emotions, foods, hobbies, holidays, and animals.

World Emoji Day is July 17th every year.

Emojis are being touted as a new universal language, important tools for communication and translation in a global world.

2.3 trillion mobile messages are sent each year with emojis.900 million emojis are sent every day WITHOUT text.92% of all internet users now use emojis.

It’s not a paradox. Writers need to use emojis.

48% of survey respondents were more likely to follow brands that use emojis on social media.44% were more likely to buy products that are advertised using emojis51% of emoji users say they are more likely to comment on brands that use emojis on social media.56% of brands using an emoji in the email subject line had higher open rates.

And what’s an emoji on steroids?

Kermit at the Keyboard


An animated Graphics Interchange Format, pronounced “JIF,” to be exact. (Someone once told me that “Choosy designers choose GIF.) Steve Wilhite created the customizable GIF in 1986, and the internet hasn’t been the same since.

GIFs are short video clips looping time after time. (Maybe the cave paintings in my head are an embedded, ancestral GIF?)

People love GIFs. They move. They’re cute. They’re colorful. They have personality. They’re 40 times more likely to be shared on social media than other types of content. On Twitter, GIFs get 167 percent more click-throughs than tweets with static images.

What’s even more fun than a short GIF?

A video.

People love videos so much that mobile usage has increased by ten million viewing minutes every day.

The amount of time an adult in the United States watches video each day is 5x as much as it was in 2011, and by 2022, 82% of all online traffic will incorporate videos.

Can you count into the billions?

One BILLION, three-hundred MILLION videos are on U-Tube, and every single day, another 300 hours of video are uploaded.

The tip of the iceberg.

Emojis, GIFs, and videos are just the tip of the iceberg of the communication of the future. Infographics, custom artwork, and virtual reality are visual mediums and will increase as well.

As a writer, I wonder. With all the emphasis on visuals, will anyone care about words anymore?

Will anyone crave the depth of meaning that words can provide, the subtle differences between shame and embarrassment and humiliation and mortification that might not come through on a pink-cheeked emoji?

Will writers be MORE in demand or LESS in demand in the future?

One writer’s hope.

Writers will be perceived as more skillful than ever before. Their talent will be more desirable than ever because not everyone will be able to do it. Most people will be too used to clicking on a visual image to portray their feelings instead of communicating with the sophisticated nuances of words.

Asking people who rely on videos and emojis to express themselves in writing will be like commanding toddlers to “use their words” when they’re in the middle of a meltdown.

Too much of a good thing is too much.

Regardless of how fast we can process a visual image, putting too many of them together makes a message harder to understand.

Check out this ad campaign from Chevy.

Chevy Emoji Ad

Did you decipher that?

Visual communication isn’t always what we want.

What about the slow, languorous read? The luxury of literature that is savored word by word instead of gulped down one Jonah-like swallow? The involved stories told with prose that weaves through eons and characters and cultures?

Years from now, emojis may be the indecipherable hieroglyphics of ancient cultures, like the simplistic cave drawings that give us a glimpse of something, but not the whole story.

Breathe easy, writers.

Words will always be necessary.

Melissa Gouty often gets pictures and weird images in her head. The need to push those ideas out into the world … using words…never stops.

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