Illustrations or Text: what’s better to communicate complex ideas?

Before we get to the juicy insides of this idea empanada, let’s start with the sometimes-omitted yet incredibly obvious part: There are no simple answers. Pictures and text are their own interrelated things, and to presume a universal superiority of over the other, is reductionist thinking at best, and insulting of the audience’s capacity at worst.

Both have their strengths, as well as their shortcomings. Both have their places. And these are, of course, dependent on the situation, what our goal in the process of communication is, and the subject matter we’re trying to communicate.

Images are understood within 13 milliseconds, according to a 2014 MIT study. That’s so fast, it is hard to visualize! But speed is not everything, and for an image to turn complex ideas or difficult-to-understand concept from “the abstract into reality”, as Julia Buntaine points out, we require something that goes beyond pixels and paint. A well-crafted image will bridge the gap between concepts that are just a little to alien and abstract and someone’s lived experience, and a well-crafted image that takes into account the specificities of an audience can find ways to give data a personal approach that is better suited for the situation at hand. Well-crafted is in and of itself a mire of a term, but what I mean by it is a visual representation that successfully conveys the desires message or messages within a specific context. However, if there is something, I’ve learned the hard way, is that we as communicators cannot make any assumptions about any audience or context until we’re right there and there, in the moment, seeing what’s happening. Which makes a post-mortem of any communication project invaluable, but that’s a story for another day.

As useful as the speed of understanding that images bring as translators of complex ideas can be, it can also become a double-edged sword. If we distil visual communication to this principle of shrinking attention spans (the same that online marketers try to push down our throats like a self-fulfilling prophecy) we may trick ourselves into a creative state where we value speed, simplicity and a visual style that is familiar in its vacuous popularity but cannot really engage with our audience at an emotional level. Shiny graphics and box standard inspirational narratives can trick us (for we are all audiences) into thinking that learning and engagement are taking place. This can be compounded if what we are doing is transforming very complex and multi-layered information into simple, speed-first digital content. Most often than not, the content science communication agencies and creative design studios create is accidentally gating off audiences from learning more, by not providing an immediate and interactive way for them to get supplementary or clarifying information to questions that may arise as they engage with the illustrated content. This latter is a concept explored by Shirish Kulkarni in a way that sparks ideas on how digital design studios like us can further improve engagement, learning outcomes and curiosity at an individual level. But such explorations will have to wait for now.

On the other side of this infinitely expanding polygonal shape of communication tools, there are text-only approaches. Ask any linguist, hell, anyone who isn’t monolingual, and you will quickly realise that language is a complicated mess of symbology, meaning and representation. Text is, of course, a visual image. But unlike drawings, the meaning is a lot more fixed. Right? Each letter can only be that one letter, and a string of letters put together can be read in the one specific way. Right? But then, the meaning of words and what we believe of them can vary widely, even when we’re talking about the same word. Meanings drift over time, context and even niche cultures. Carcinization, for example, can be a neat package of a word, describing “an example of convergent evolution in which a crustacean evolves a crab-like form from a non crab-like form”. But it can also point out to a growing part of meme culture that, as far as I can find out, is the intersection between this XKCD comic strip (which is in itself a self-reference to previous comics on carcinization) and this silly trailer for the strategy videogame Civilization 6, in which a Crab God religion is created through emergent play. But more influential still is the song Crab Rave by Noisestorm that came out a year after the aforementioned trailer, which engendered its own sub-genre of memes, as well as perhaps being promo material for either an indie videogame developer, or a joke videogame project that will never happen?

This is already becoming its own crab hole and I need an anthropologist to make sense of it.

That last paragraph’s length illustrates that text can mean a lot more space to elaborate (word-limits be damned!) and maintain complexity. With infinite time and resources, my preferred method in that paragraph would’ve been to link each new subject to other 1,000-word articles, giving you, the audience, the option to go deeper and deeper into different tangents that catch your eye. Sort of how Wikipedia can trap you with its links. The paragraph may also illustrate that text itself is not universal. Even if we imagine a word to be commonly used, its meaning may vary tremendously between contexts and audiences.

Amelia Huw Morgan's illustration of a head in a cone, rendered in bold, colourful brushstrokes reminiscing of early 1900s circus art.

In terms of science communication, text-based approaches can be overly complicated, full of specialist knowledge and jargon, like scientific journal publications, precisely because they are for an audience that has already gotten through the gatekeepers into a world of understanding. Or perhaps that same knowledge has been graciously distilled for us by someone who can simplify without removing complexity. But perhaps it is held hostage by paywall of ludicrous height, which “generate violations of the democratic norm of equality” as Robert Hackett has argued.

Well, which approach to communicating complex ideas is better, then?

Again, I’d like to point to Giorgia Lupi, who suggest that subjectivity and context play a much bigger role in data communication than we initially give them credit for. And I am one to agree with this. Amelia Huw Morgan (née Johnstone) from Cardiff School of Art and Design has said that illustration – as both a pictorial, image-making practice, and a metaphorical, meaning-creating exercise through any medium of communication – can only happen when an audience encounters a subject matter within a specific context.

Both online or offline, communication is a complex matter. But if there is anything close to an adage, or a neat truth about communication, visual or otherwise, is that which Amelia taught me while in university.