In an age dominated by visual communication how are classic images such as the lightbulb, the handshake, the cog, evolving? In the next few weeks we will be getting insight from image-makers, industry experts and image users, and offering guidance on new directions in a unique slice of imagery
As I write this I’m slightly distracted by two conceptual images. One is the cover of the summer issue of food magazine Gather Journal, a visual pun, communicating an issue devoted to food and the cinema. It’s cherry pie as Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s funny, and the simple visual wit grabs the reader (Photo is by Grant Cornett, see his recent Food series for The New York Times magazine here). The second image is the feature image for The Guardian website’s regular quiz, The Test. It’s on the newspaper’s homepage that’s a collage of headlines, links and photos – of politicians and celebrities, cyclists and footballers – a typographic explosion of visual noise, it’s the feature image for The Test that my eye rests on – a light-bulb with a question-mark inside it.
“The lightbulb is a cliché”, I hear you say? Well yes, but a cliché is just familiar shorthand, a way of getting us somewhere else fast with as little fuss as possible. We think of cliché in negative terms, and indeed sometimes it’s lazy thinking, but when created and used with skill, it’s simply a shared language that’s gets us to an idea quickly.
Concept/Symbolic imagery such as the lightbulb, the handshake, the cog, have always been a pure form of visual communication, words slowing down the electric rush of the idea as it accelerates and ‘lights up’ the synapses to the brain. Direct, idea-based images have always been a way cutting through the clutter. In the first wave of anxiety around the ‘image’ culture as it emerged in the 1960s, former Mad Man George Lois who worked at Doyle Dane Dernbach,created a series of classic, splashy, visually conceptual covers as Art Director of Esquire magazine that tracked the rapidly changing world of 60s America. His martyred Ali cover.
The post-assasination JFK portrait contrasting the icon and the human.
The image of Marilyn Monroe addressing anxieties about fluid gender roles.
And his cover picturing 1960s Avant Garde art drowning in its own conceptual soup.
The image culture of the 1960s contributed to the culture shock of the times, and popular idea-based imagery surfed on a wave of visual colourful excitement (in the UK, The Sunday Times magazine went colour in 1962 and spawned a wave of lauded image-based features and covers with an Art department featuring Michael Rand and David King). But defined in terms of quantity, the 1960s has little in common with the world of 2013 where imagery is a social currency that is shared, liked and posted on a scale unimagined 5 years ago, never mind 50 years ago.
Tech start-up 1000memories, a company creating software to enable the archiving and organization of family photos, delivers some stats on the evolving popularity of photography over the last century that dramatically charts how central imagery has become to our lives.:
“By 1960 it is estimated that 55% of photos were of babies.”
“the 20th century was the golden age of analog photography peaking at an amazing 85 billion physical photos in 2000 – an incredible 2,500 photos per second.”
“this year  people will upload over 70 billion photos to Facebook, suggesting around 20% of all photos this year will end up there.”
“in total we have now taken over 3.5 trillion photos.”
Data such as the amount of baby images in 1960 tells us that ‘cute’ was a currency way back when, and virals of beautiful/funny/cute images of babies are just digital carrying on an analogue tradition. Equally, Instagram has 16 Billion photos shared, 45 million taken with the app each day.
The vehicle for this, the smartphone, has already entered the visual language as a sign not just of connection but as the visual sign of a treasured, personal archive. What was once the family portrait on the sideboard, or the family photo on the desk at work, or in the wallet is now on the smartphone, the image of memory, of the loved-one.
At this moment, when images have become the default social connector of the age, for professional users and for image-makers idea-based imagery is a tool for a) expressing an idea fast or b) functions as an introduction, like ‘the handshake’, such images are like a formal greeting before you get to the specifics of a message.
Yet while some of the drivers of concept or idea-based images remain the same, some will need to evolve because of changing social and cultural context.
So what about that lightbulb moment, have you had one yet? I had one reading a research paper by Vlad Petre Glăveanu from the London School of Economics entitled, Is the Lightbulb still on?: Social Representations of Creativity in a Western Context. Glăveanu’s paper was initially based on interviews with ‘western nationals’, asking their assessment of 8 symbols, a set of images of creativity he had boiled down from an analysis of 500 images thrown up by an image search on google. When asked about their thoughts on the best symbol of creativity, most suggested images related to an idea artistic expression such as the paintbrush, while the respondents favoured abstract symbols of creativity, “revolved around ideas of complexity, messiness, excitement and strangeness as well as “infinite possibilities”. Examples here are: mobius strip, Celtic knot, squiggle, infinity sign, question mark, Yin and Yang, cross, Vitruvian man, compass, prism, empty chair, etc.” [Glaveneau, page 60]
What was also interesting was the extent to which images of children’s drawings were regarded as visual signs of creativity. I suspect, that except for artistic types such as Picasso (“it took me 4 years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child“) it’s only in the last 20 years or so, with shifts towards for example child-centred learning rather than rote-learning in schools, that the myth of childhood as a hive of creativity has become a mainstream idea/image.
And Glaveneau’s research shows the double-edged nature of the lightbulb’s fame. It’s familiarity meant the respondents to the survey thought it didn’t really communicate ‘creativity’, but did communicate ideas and inspiration. “The lightbulb appeared ‘conventional’ and ‘over-used’,” writes Glaveneau, “and this made it ‘rather uncreative’ for a creativity symbol. On the whole though, the lightbulb’s link to thinking and ideas worked in its favour since ‘a lightbulb, to me, means that you were able to think outside the box, pairing up the details, and coming up with a solution. It takes creativity to be able to come up with a bright new idea’. And it is exactly the process of coming up with ‘bright’ ideas that the lightbulb stands for.”
For aesthetic reasons, the lightbulb’s meaning changes just because it has become so popular. Like the classic pop tune you can’t get out of your head, it’s both utterly compelling and irritating just because it is unforgettable. In a sea of images, such imagery will always standout as a visual anchor. Yet the meaning of traditional concepts change for social and political reasons too. This Greenpeace ad takes aim at the incandescent light-bulb adding a simple visual sign – the noose.
What it does, in common with all concept/idea-based imagery is that it strips everything visual away except the essential. The most extreme, most successful version of this is illustrator Noma Bar who over the past five years has developed a graphic language the reduces the images down to a graphic constructed mostly out of 2 colour ‘negative space’.
Clients understand the value of Bar’s work, it speaks to the sense of fun and the visual intelligence of consumers who enjoy working out Bar’s puzzles. Bar is the ultimate example of a world that increasingly shifting to visual as its instinctive, default form of communication and interaction. It’s also a challenge for the culture of clients and businesses.
While people happily simply post image-communications on Facebook and Instagram, the internal culture driving businesses is reams of textual documentation, from the email avalanche everyday to the documentation around processes. While there has always been a divide between the rituals of personal communication and the way we communicate at work, there is increasingly a growing gap between the visual media and forms we use personally, and the textual forms at work.
Some brands are so confident that we are now hard-wired with an instinctive understanding of visual language that they are willing to talk about ‘visual metaphors’ in ads on prime time TV. Barclays bank used comedian Stephen Merchant to ‘deconstruct’ an ads visual components as we watched.
Though in this ad the narrator missed out on drawing our attention to one of the classic visual symbols – the cog and the machine.
The ‘cog’ has been a classic symbol of something essential in a productive process (or its opposite, as just part of a ‘machine’) but it’s no surprise that in post-industrial countries, the cog is a visual reference belonging to an age well gone. Equally, it would be no surprise to see the ‘cog’ reborn as as a topical visual sign the manufacturing powerbases of the emergent new economies.
In the next few weeks we will be looker closer at conceptual imagery, listing and exploring 10 classic images, interviewing image-makers and industry experts, and examining the some unexpected uses of this kind of imagery.
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