A picture is worth 10,000 words. Or is it?

The phrase “A picture is worth 10,000 words” is one of the most contradictory phrases of all times.  Indeed it is the perfect example of self-contradiction.  Here’s why.

The phrase originated in an article by Fred R. Barnard in the advertising magazine “Printers’ Ink” and related to a promotion for advertisements placed on the sides of trams in Chicago in 1921.

The original article was headlined “One Look is Worth A Thousand Words,”   This in itself was a simple variation on the comment by the Russian writer Ivan Turgenvey who in 1862 wrote “A picture shows me at a glance what it takes dozens of pages of a book to expound.”

What makes both the original statement and the revised 1921 version so contradictory is that they are texts – in the 1921 case a simple sentence of six words, which aims to suggest that a picture would have done the job far better than the six words.

In which case one might ask, why not use a picture to put across this message, if pictures are that good?

Sadly for those members of the advertising profession who were graphic designers, it was the phrase which caught on, and not the pictures that they wanted to promote – which says a lot about the relative merits of pictures and words.

But a good advertising man never gives up even when all the odds are against him, and Fred Barnard returned to the theme six years later with the phrase “One Picture is Worth Ten Thousand Words.”   This time however not only did he change the phrase to the exact set of words we remember today, but he suggested that this phrase was a Chinese proverb, rather than something he had just invented.

This fact was later revealed by the editor of “The Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Phrases” who clearly took his job very seriously.  He spoke to Fred Barnard about the origin of the text when including it in his reference volume.  Barnard, clearly recognising that he was getting himself into deep water here, came clean and admitted that, “I called it a Chinese proverb, so that people would take it seriously.”

However despite Barnard’s admission, the notion that this phrase was of Chinese origin took hold and by the 1930s it was widely being quoted as being originated by Confucius – which a quick reference to his works can be seen to be completely untrue.

As for the saying itself, it is no more true today than it was in the 1920s.  A handful of words can always “paint” a picture in much greater detail for the mind’s eye than any actual picture can do.

But much more important is the fact that the text can not only be more detailed, it can be taken in much more quickly.   Text is read by the left hemisphere of the brain, while the picture is generally seen by the right hemisphere.   The left hemisphere tends to be much quicker at handling data, and so the meaning becomes apparent much more quickly.

Of course the brain, being the brain, doesn’t quite work that simply, and the speed at which any thing is seen and recognised depends as much on our level of interest and willingness to read, as it does on whether we use pictures or text.

But overall we can be sure that a picture is never worth 10,000 words in terms of putting information across.

However no matter what you have to store on paper – be it pictures or print – we can accommodate you.

For more information on our document storage go to our website or call us on 0800 783 9516.

Comments are closed.