By: Kevin Gould – President, Stryker-Munley Group Boston

Lately, I have been fascinated by the way that new technology is taking us full circle in the evolution of mass communication. We are essentially becoming modern-day cavewomen and cavemen.

If you think back to how early humans first began to “mass communicate”, it was through pictures and grunting sounds. In fact, humans were telling stories with pictures thousands of years ago when rock walls were the communication medium of choice rather than something you climb at the gym on your lunch hour. I wonder who the first prehistoric human was to use a handheld mobile device by drawing a picture on a smaller rock that he or she could carry around rather than having to wait for everyone to come look at a static message etched a cave wall?

While images have always been a powerful way to communicate, it has never been easier than it is today to communicate visual messages. The ability to capture and create visual images with incredibly powerful handheld technology, ubiquitous lightning fast connectivity and the growth of social media sites and apps for sharing them has created a visual messaging Renaissance at the expense of the written word.

There is no doubt that we are using fewer words and more visuals to communicate our messages today than compared to a few years ago. We don’t always communicate in complete sentences or even use complete words. We now grunt with our thumbs in an odd new language of text abbreviations, gifs, hashtags, emoticons and, many times, auto-correct gobbledygook.

While this is a troubling development to those who believe we are losing the ability to communicate effectively through the written word and the formal rules of language, is it really a bad thing? As we become a more global and mobile society, visuals have the ability to transcend language barriers in order to communicate effectively with diverse audiences. There are roughly 6500 languages in the world. Most have a different word for goat. Yet, a picture of a goat is universally understood by all (assuming they’ve seen a goat before).

Visual communication can also transcend time. While scholars and cryptographers are still trying to decipher the written language of the roughly 500 year-old Voynich manuscript, there is little debate about key messages being communicated in the more than 7000 year-old Magura cave drawings. The drawings clearly communicate societal events of the time such as religious ceremonies and hunting scenes.

It should be noted that the Vonyich manuscript does contain many illustrations intended to support the text. However, without an ability to decipher the text, the images are unable to effectively communicate the author’s messages.

So, what is the right amount of visuals versus text? Is there such a thing as too many pictures? And just because we have all these new visual tools, are we really any good at using them to communicate clearly and effectively? The answers to these questions are highly subjective and contextual and, therefore, open to much debate.

The important thing to remember is that there is no magic formula with regards to the right combination of visuals and text. While many digital and social media platforms impose restrictions such as video length, image file size, and word or character counts, it still part science, part art when it comes to creating the right mix of media to deliver your message.

Just because we are using more visuals and less text these days, doesn’t mean the key metric has changed. The measure of effective communication is still the same as it has always been: Did the message make the target audience think, feel or do what you wanted them to? That’s what our prehistoric ancestors were trying to do when they scrawled images on cave walls. And we’re still trying to do the same thing today by going back to the future. The fact that we are still receiving and understanding their messages today is a testament to the power of visual communication…and their choice of medium! I wonder if 7000 years from now some digital archeologist will uncover my Instagram post from last week and still understand its meaning?

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the ways you are using visuals in your work and what you see as the next steps in the evolution of how we use them to effectively inform, educate, entertain and persuade audiences.