Magazine article Communication World

Communicating with Pictures: Key to 21st Century Publications

Magazine article Communication World

Communicating with Pictures: Key to 21st Century Publications

Article excerpt

As I begin my fourth decade of helping organizational publications make and use photographs more effectively as communication, I marvel at the pace of technological change since IABC burst upon the scene 20 years ago. Back in 1970 we banged out our stories on typewriters, not on computerized desktop publishing systems. We made our pictures the old-fashioned way by picking our own f/stops and shutter speeds. Today, most cameras are actually small computers. All they need is productive input in order to get reasonably effective output. Yet a lot of people somehow forget that photographers, not cameras, make pictures.

As you can see from the photos on this spread, I've changed a bit in 20 years myself. Beards turn gray between the ages of 35 and 55. I welcome whatever wisdom I may have gained along with the gray-I've learned a great deal from training nearly 8,000 organizational communicators in my workshops over the past 20 years. This experience has shown me that although our tools may have come a long way, our approach to visual content as photographers has changed very little since 1970.

Twenty years ago, visual literacy was an unknown concept in organizational circles. Sadly, it still remains an alien concept to many organizational communicators in 1990.

Photographs, both then and now, are too often thought of as mere literal illustrations-something plugged into a hole after the story is written and laid out.

Readers' Habits Underscore Visual Literacy Need

Visual literacy-the use of photography as substantive content in its own right-is still only practiced by a handful of organizations.

Ironically, our audiences have become much more visually sophisticated over the past two decades. They no longer really read-particularly free publications. They skim them. They look at the pictures first, read the heads and perhaps the captions, and move on to other things. As such, they must receive an instantaneous message from the images first and then from words as verbal context.

Today's visually literate communicators know this. They plan photographic approaches as carefully as they plan verbal content. They make and lay out the photos first, and then write the words to complement them.

This was virtually unheard of back in the '70s. And this concept still shocks many of my workshoppers today. In fact, the majority of organizational communicators still function at the most primitive of visual levels. Proof of this is the fact that I've had to continually return to the same basic lessons in visual literacy in this column over the past 20 years. I've covered, again and again, such basic how-to subjects as how to avoid grip and grin cliches, how to improve on the mug shot, the group shot, the boring picture of somebody sitting at a desk.

The very fact that such non-communicative concepts as these still appear in organizational publications tells me that organizations are always changing. Visually literate people-those who use photographs as language-move on to other things, and are often replaced by people who see photographs as something other than communication: as rewards for the people who appear in them, ego-gratifiers, decorative devices, and most often, as mere literal description of such matter. As we charge ahead into a new century, and try to imagine the nature of the 21st century organizational publication, I fear that many organizations will no doubt continue to lag behind in the 20th century (with some even stuck in the 19th!). As long as word-oriented people are in charge of publications, stories will continue to be written first with pictures regarded as afterthoughts.

It will remain for the visually literate among us to shape the 21st century publications as they should be shaped-publications based on visual content for visually oriented readers.

Douglis' Gallery of Favorites over the Years

What kind of pictures will be made and used in the next century as organizational communication? …

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