19 juni 2013

You say it best … when you say nothing at all

I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN INTRIGUED by the title of this song which became a major hit thanks to Notting Hill. I’m sure it’s all about love and devotion, just like the movie, but you don’t need to be much of a male chauvinist pig to interpret it in a more sexist way. In any case, the theme is non-verbal communication and that is why I came to think of it when looking at two wonderful magazine cover illustrations.

Instead of following the usual path for magazine covers and combine visuals and words, the standard procedure for a New Yorker cover is to rely on the visual element alone, with no accompanying headline. This shows great trust in the power of non-verbal communication. On a New Yorker front page, the illustration by itself has to convey the message so clearly that no words will be needed. I find this approach really bold and inspiring, but does it work?

First, let’s have a look at the two covers. One relates to last year’s U.S. presidential election campaign (the issue is from October 15, 2012) and the other one is a comment on a new citibike initiative in New York City.

THE NARRATIVE TECHNIQUES of the two illustrations are not the same.
The one to the left, created by Barry Blitt, is almost like a secret code. You won’t understand it unless you know two things. One, that Mitt Romney won the first TV debate with Barack Obama by such a wide margin that the president might as well not have participated. And the other thing you need to know is that Clint Eastwood was a speaker at the Republican National Convention 31 August 2012, and as a rhetorical device, he chose to address a chair on the stage, pretending that it was president Obama.

So first, ”a chair” has been established as a metaphor for Barack Obama, and secondly – even though the artist might not agree with that metaphor or sympathize with Eastwood’s convention stunt (very few people did) – he uses it to illustrate how disappointed he is with the president’s debate performance five weeks later. This is very witty, I think. But it’s also pretty demanding. The New Yorker expects a lot from its audience.

WITH THE CITIBIKE COVER, you don’t need lots of factual knowledge to understand the illustration. It might help if you have heard of the New York citibike initiative but even if you have not, you will still roughly understand what the story is about (and be a lot wiser once you have read the article inside. At least that is my presumption … I only know these two illustrations from the web).

Still, the cover puzzled me. Like the majority of those who used the New Yorker’s Facebook page to comment on the illustration, I saw it as ironic, the message being: It would be better if people got their exercise when riding through town on a city bike than by sweating in a gym.
But the funny thing about images as communicators is that even when a visual message seems crystal clear to you, another person might interpret the same image in a completely different way. According to Connie Malamed who wrote Visual Language for Designers, studies show that people frequently misinterpret images – that is, understanding the message of the image differently than what was intended.

The citibike illustration was probably conceived to be ironic (even though the artist, Marcellus Hall, did not mention this when interviewed about his illustration). But we cannot know for sure – maybe Hall was just imagining a funny situation – and, more importantly, does the potential irony reflect the coverage inside the magazine? My guess is it does not.

UNDER NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES, I would regard it a huge weakness for an illustration to be biased in a different direction than the story it is supposed to illustrate. In previous blogposts (here’s one example), I have criticized such cases because of the obvious risk that readers will get confused, disorientated, even misled.
I guess The New Yorker is the exception that proves the rule.
Readers of this magazine have gotten used to covers that do not qualify or substantitate the story but should be rather seen as a ”second opinion”, as an artist’s independent point of view on the topic, sometimes even contradicting the words inside the magazine. Most likely, the same readers appreciate this communicative strategy and look forward to see ”what they have come up with this week”.

The reason why it works? There are three, I think. One is habit. I once heard a jazz drummer explain that ”if I make a mistake, I’ll make sure to repeat it a couple of times. That way, it will no longer be a mistake; I have simply invented a new figure”.
If you show consistency in the way you communicate, just about anything may work.
The other reason is that the audience of The New Yorker are not your average magazine readers but quite upmarket and intellectual. For titles such as Tattoo Magazine or Hot Rod, the approach might not be recommendable.
And last, but not least, it works simply because The New Yorker uses such great illustrators. Every week of the year.

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