Greater Understanding…Fewer Words

07 Nov 2005|Joanne Mendel

A few of us recently went to see Gogol’s wordless play ”The Overcoat” where themes of class hierarchy and oppression are acted out through a hybrid of dance, clowning & mime-like gestures and facial expressions. Overcoat play The actors also rearrange stage props throughout the play as another story telling device. As subtle and complex as the plot is, words would have gotten in the way of conveying it. The physical and gestural story telling devices used were so easy to understand and engaging. It’s no small feat that a wordless play, authored 150 years ago in Russia, can still resonate across time and cultural differences to be understood and appreciated today.

This is a noteworthy contrast to the word junkies we’ve become, daily subscribing to information overload. If we don’t understand something, we default to piling on more words to explain it. We’re frequently unwilling to wade through the words we’ve amassed in order to understand what they all mean, let alone formulating our knowledge in ways that can be shared and used. Only with emerging technologies and devices have alternatives to words become enmeshed in our communications, as if these modes of comprehension were something new.

While our technology has been evolving, several fields of research have independently contributed insights about the effectiveness (and efficiency) of the visual communication of knowledge:
Graphic Designers have long understood the power of visuals to lessen the load of cognitive processing in people. Paul Rand “A Designer’s Art”

Gestalt psychology tells us that our brains have a strong ability to identify patterns in processing information. “Gestalt Psychology: An Introduction to New Concepts in Modern Psychology”

Visualizing information: Edward Tufte discusses underlying principals for presenting dense information in a clear way. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative

Technology: Stuart Card discusses using visualizations to think with. “Readings in Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think”

Perhaps these are contributing factors as to why people today are so responsive to emerging technologies and devices that enable them to share and comprehend meaning in ways other than words alone. If Gogol’s play is any indication, we’re only now beginning to find the means to do what has come more naturally to us for a long time.

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