the cultural shift from words to pictures
This is a dream production in terms of graphic design – a lavishly illustrated and beautifully produced book which cuts no corners in delivering a luxury product. But it also has a serious argument explored in the text. The thesis is that the modern world has witnessed a shift away from the written word towards the visual image as a form of communication. In other words a shift from left to right of the cerebral cortex in our way of thinking.
The book takes a historical survey from the early years of the last century to the present to prove the point, and the theoretical claims are supported by quotes from cultural theorists such as Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and Marshall McLuhan. It’s a very lavish production, with thick matte paper; huge page margins; full colour; acres of blank space; colour-coded chapter dividers; and well-selected graphics given all the breathing space they need.
However, I’m not sure that David Crow’s central argument is proven. We communicate a great deal these days with logos, symbols, and icons it’s true, but compared with the daily avalanche of words, the proportion is trivial.
He’s arguing that visual culture is replacing literary culture, but the examples he cites are of magazines which have merely increased the percentage of graphics they use. Commercial companies have to make their advertising act quickly – hence the use of pictures rather than words – but that is not the same as graphics replacing language as a cultural influence.
Lots of bold theoretical claims are made, in a way which somehow don’t need to be made. The examples shown are simply new and interesting visual images: they are not displacing words as an influence or introducing new cultural paradigms: they are simply fresh visual inventions.
The second part of the book deals with the history and development of writing systems – though his source for this is the rather self-confessedly lightweight Story of Writing, rather than the far more scholarly Henri-Jean Martin’s The History and Power of Writing or Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy. This leads into an encomium on the work of Otto Neurath, who proposed a ‘language’ of symbols, then the work of Charles K. Bliss doing a similar kind of thing.
Next he moves on to typographic experimentation on 1970s and 1980s UK. There are some interesting details on the way new effects were created technically, and we’re introduced to graphically innovative designers of the digital age such as Neville Brody, Peter Saville, and Malcolm Garrett. All the left-cortex right-cortex nonsense is left behind, and the study really comes to life. I would be happy to read a book-length study of this period alone if he chose to write one.
The latter part of the book is a celebration of digital possibilities – for as he rightly claims, the computer is
at once a typewriter, a retrieval device, a page layout engine, a photo retouching tool, an edit suite, a recording studio, a television and a radio.
The same is increasingly true of the mobile phone, with which he concludes. I was quite relieved to leave all the left-brain right-brain and language/visuals dichotomy argument behind and concentrate on graphic design and digital technology, which is where his heart obviously lies – and where he would be best employed concentrating his attention in future publications of this quality.
© Roy Johnson 2006
David Crow, Left to Right: the cultural shift from words to pictures, Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA, 2006, pp.192, ISBN: 2940373361