The picture superiority effect says that pictures are remembered better than words, especially when people are casually exposed to the information and the exposure is for a very limited time. When information recall is measured just after exposure to a series of pictures or a series of words the recall for pictures and words is about equal. However, the picture superiority effect applies when the time after exposure is more than 30 seconds, according to the research cited in Universal Principles of Design. The effect is strongest when the pictures represent common, concrete things compared to more abstract ideas.
“Use the picture superiority effect to improve the recognition and recall of key information. Use pictures and words together, and ensure that they reinforce the same information for optimal effect.”
— Universal Principles of Design (page 152)
You can see the picture superiority effect used widely in marketing communications such as posters, billboards, brochures, annual reports, etc. The effect should be kept in mind too when designing slides (images and text) that support a narrative, though this is often neglected as most people opt for bulleted lists. I have pointed to these PowerPoint-like posters in Japan for Japan Tobacco before (and here too) as they are a good example of pictogram-like images plus text that express a clear and even emotional (humorous) message. So what about the power of pictograms?
Pictograms and ideograms
Pictograms are images that represent a word; they are iconic representations of an object or an idea. For example, symbolic signs are pictograms altered to create new meaning, such as a bright light bulb (“idea”) or a skull and cross bones (“danger, poison,” etc.). An ideogram is a graphic of a nonrepresentational idea such as the ubiquitous red circle with a line through it ("prohibited, do not," etc.).
You see these kind of signs and symbols everywhere especially in airports, in international tourist destinations, etc. They are used today to create simple, iconic images that can communicate a message clearly in an instant and across cultures. Not all pictographs or ideograms translate well, in fact they are often culture specific. For example, while we were out on a bike ride along Osaka Bay over the weekend, we took a break to buy some fresh bentos and iced tea for the day’s trek. As we entered the local super market I noticed this sign (below). This sign cracked me up, but my wife thought I was nuts for finding anything odd or amusing in this.
No Smoking. No Photography. No….Bombs?
When I first saw this sign the three messages I received in an instant were “ No smoking,” “No pictures,” (reasonable) and “No….bombs?” What? No bombs? That can’t be right I thought, so I read the redundant text messages that appear under each image. The text under the “bomb” says “Do not bring in dangerous items.” “No Smoking” and “No Photography” are concrete ideas and specific, but “No Dangerous Items” is a bit more abstract or at least not specific. What exactly constitutes a “dangerous item”? And is there a better way to visually represent the idea of “No dangerous items” other than an image of the kind of bomb with a burning fuse that is commonly used in Saturday morning cartoons?
Because I am more of a visual person it is the images not the images plus text together that stood out to me. The first two images (No Smoking, No Photography) need no text at all to be understood in Japan, they are common. In the case of the “bomb” it is the image and the text together that gave it meaning. So perhaps the bomb graphic at least helped the message get noticed. Just an image of the bomb alone may not be understood in Japan either (though frankly nobody notices these signs anyway, hence the need for two No Smoking signs on the same door).
Is it culture?
Culture surely plays a role in how pictorial representations are interpreted. My wife did not at all share my fascination with these pictographs. The black cannon-ball type bomb is commonly used in cartoons in many cultures and holds the same place as the rubber chicken as a comedic prop (a rubber chicken is not widely understood as a comedic prop in Japan, however). You can even find the bomb clipart in various forms available for download on the Microsoft website.
This particular case is not a big deal, but it is a reminder that when we are going to present overseas it is wise to take the time to consult our host country counter parts and advisors to see if all our messages — including visual ones — are understood in the same manner we intend for them to be. The world is a pretty small, interconnected place these days, but one’s culture still influences the interpretation of graphic depictions so it is best to see if our visuals “translate” well. Graphics usually “translate” more easily than words, but this is by no means always the case. Since the understanding of visual representations is usually a learned skill, technical communicators must be particularly careful as the levels of visual literacy will vary widely in different parts of the world.