Visual Vocabulary

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Visual vocabulary describes physical cues and the manner in which humans interpret those cues to determine both their personal reality and larger worldview. The current redefinition of visual stimuli has evolved exponentially over the last four decades, and now extends from its origins in music deeply into politics. But music was indeed the source.

Evolution of visual vocabulary

As early as 1890, George Thomas was printing photos on glass slides, hand-coloring the images and projecting them while musicians played and sang in the foreground. In the 1920s, Oskar Fischinger was producing scored abstract films which he called visual music.

MTV came on the air in August 1981 and played their first music video, Video Killed the Radio Star, by the Buggles.

Over the next few years, four minutes and fifteen seconds was established as the attention-span of the teen video-viewer, and songwriters gravitated to that timeframe to create hits. Music video-directors began to try and push more and more imagery into 255 seconds, to win over the new rapt viewers, as opposed to listeners.

By 1990 four seconds became the legitimate number for the perfect music video. A 255 second video, divided by sixty or more edits, results in four second bursts of action. Thus a whole generation, most of whom are now of voting age, grew up getting their visual information in packets of less than four seconds.

Theatrical movies, television shows, and commercials all followed, courting the 18 to 25-year-old demographic through the same decreasing (in length) and increasing (in number of cuts) visual diet.

Human visual evolution: the way people see things has been forever changed over the past century.

Visual vocabulary and politics

The 2008 US election is a case in point. The country found itself physically isolated from its candidates, making choices based largely on images gathered from a screen flickering a couple dozen times a second in front of viewers’ eyes, in a system of information derived largely from music videos. It is a hard task to find proper writing service, there is always a risk to be cheated or at least to get unsatisfactory grade for passing low quality paper. I have tried tons of them, and, to my mind, this is the best essay writing service. Please take it into consideration because I think that it�s better to try it once than waste your time and money on unprofessional writing companies. No better proof of this premise need be offered other than the eighteen million views of Yes We Can on YouTube, a video juxtaposing the candidate with a montage of musical performers, at once confirming Barack Obama’s legitimacy as a candidate to an entire new generation of voters. The vast majority of this generation now bases its political purview on a relatively small, two-dimensional, rectangular audiovisual source.

Colors and framing, as well as timing, are important elements of the way a visual story is perceived. Bright red in film is described as “visual caffeine” by author Patti Bellantoni in If It’s Purple, Someone's Gonna Die: The Power of Color in Visual Storytelling, a book recounting her twenty-five years of research into the effects of color on behavior. It is an interesting coincidence being that, beneath their black suits, politicians generally wear red ties.

The camera angle, known as shooting dutch, captures everything on the diagonal. This is classically used to signal a situation where something dreadful is going to happen. In political ads that that disparage an opponent, the frequency of dutch shots that frame the “bad guy” is higher than average.

Record companies routinely film both live and lip-synch versions of songs, generally choosing the lip-synch version to send to fans. After almost three decades of methodical music-video barrage, viewers have been subconsciously trained to think that faked performance is the way real performance looks. Similarly, voters have become accustomed to the structure of the classic sterilized thirty-second political advertising soundbite.

Additional resources

  • Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus - an interactive dictionary and thesaurus which creates word maps that blossom with meanings and branch to related words


Author: Jim Gabour