Wednesday, January 30, 2013

- The Universal Language

Before humans learn to read words, they recognize symbols - also known as visual icons.

At one point my husband thought our two year old son Wyatt was some sort of a genius because he could frequently tell him when Sponge Bob was on the DirectTV channel guide.  I hated to burst his bubble and explain that Wyatt wasn't reading the listing of the show (but I did anyway).  Instead Wyatt was recognizing and interpreting the yellow, square, and happy image that is Sponge Bob.

As babies all four of my children were given infant stimulation toys (black and white soft/toddler proof pictures) and they would smile at the picture of a mom.  I remember how the children would often laugh and smile at the mom image, and say "ma, ma, ma."

At first I was annoyed that my offspring thought I looked like a somewhat nefarious character with extremely out of control swirly hair, but then realized that they were recognizing this as the universal symbol for mom.

When we found out my youngest son was partially deaf, we all resorted to pointing at images (while we slowly learned how to sign) in order to convey meaning.  If there wasn't an exact image available for references, we would attempt to draw our message to James - which was comical because I cannot even draw a stick attempts at art/communication usually resulted in frowns and heads shaking in dismay.

As children age and begin to learn their letters and step into reading, visuals are used less and less; all of a sudden children are all grown up and in college or the work force - analyzing words. Words, words, words.  Scholars spend lots of time reading articles and books, searching for meaning among the thousands of letters.  Pictures are greatly absent from most adult novels, and quite frequently from scholarly work as well.

It's not a wonder that it is this way because words are often thought of as symbols of logic whereas visuals are frequently relegated to the art category - serving as neat added bonuses. The visual can be compared to the Happy Meal Toy.  Sure the crappy toy makes the Happy Meal more fun - but without it it would still be a Happy Meal (although my 3 year old would beg to differ).

I find this all particularly surprising because in this virtual reality/cyber space world it seems as if we are surrounded by visuals, perhaps more now than ever before. So, then why aren't visuals used more in college papers?

Well, there are a ton of arguments about that.

One being that YOUR WORDS should be able to convey your message.

Which is true.
(Note how I capitalized "your words" even changing the font of my message is a visual cue that grabs a reader's attention).

If you are completely depressed now and feel as if visuals have been left behind by college papers and that you will never use them again, do not be dismayed - visuals have found a wonderful home in business/professional writing.

And that is because visuals are considered a universal language.

Typically in the business world decisions need to be made quickly.  Most business professionals do not have the time to read pages and pages of research findings.  Instead, a graph can quickly express research which leads to a decision being made and business being dealt with more rapidly.

Also, the world is growing ever closer.  Frequently people work together who do not speak the same language, and by using visuals in business reports workers are able to communicate in a language that does not depend on grammar and the alphabet.

Here are some neat facts I found about using visual aids in business documents:
  • Visuals arouse reader immediate interest
  • Visuals increase reader understanding by simplifying concepts
  • Visuals are especially important for non-native English speaking and multicultural audiences
  • Visuals emphasize key relationships
  • Visuals condense and summarize a large quantity of information into a relatively small space
  • Visuals are highly persuasive
There are rules that apply to using visuals - meaning you can't just slap a beautiful print on your report and hope it produces the desired effect.  To use visuals effectively people should remember the following bullet points:
  • Use them only for a specific purpose
  • Consider how a specific visual will help readers
  • Remember visuals are supposed to add to - and not take the place of - clearly written words
  • Use high quality images
  • Clearly label and identity the visual
  • Introduce the visual in your document before using it
The types of visuals vary vastly in professional writing.  Business professionals often use tables, pie charts, bar charts, line graphs, dot charts, radar graphs (which is kind of like a neat star shaped thing), time charts,  photographs, maps, flow charts, blue prints, and I could go on.... because there are really all kinds of options.

When using visuals a writer must make sure that they clarify rather than confuse an issue.  

For instance, if I suddenly found myself writing a blog about visuals in professional writing, I probably would not want to use an image like this:

Cute, and an attention grabber indeed, but probably not very useful (at least for this topic). 

If I was in a situation where I was writing a blog about the use and importance of visuals in professional writing/business world, I think that the perfect image to use to clarify my point would be this:

Would you like to know more about visuals in business writing?  Check out these helpful websites:
Technical WritingStrategic Business Writing, and here is a neat link to a PowerPoint Presentation designed by the Oklahoma State University Writing Center.

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