When the Text is Image, What Does it Mean?

In Which I Trace the Shift From Text as Meaning to Context-Dominated Text

Inspired by Vandendorpe’s From Papyrus to Hypertext

In this video, a Studio Post Productions Demo Reel – http://studiopost.com/videproductions/ – I found on YouTube, you can see a number of examples of text being used as image. This is a radically new use of text, one that has only come out of the artistic closet and into more widespread use since the development of the Web. It is also one that could only come into existence during a modern, highly-literate, technological time.

The printing press, followed by generations of almost universal literacy, has given most people of the modern Western world a relationship with text that is beyond intuitive into tacit. We’ve done the 10,000 hours of practice Malcolm Gladwell wrote about; we read fluently. We decode words before we even notice that we’ve made meaning from these visual symbols that represent words.

Our modern, technological culture has had centuries of interaction with text in book format. We have reverenced books, initially because they were mostly holy scriptures, and then, in the Age of Enlightenment, because they were containers of wisdom and knowledge and beauty and a tool for preserving knowledge and art. Books were made up of text doing important cultural ‘work’. And they were a source of pleasure and prestige.

In books, a larger size of print indicated a title, an indicator of what the next bit of text was about; it helped set the context for readers so they knew the beginning point of the thought, and context was absolutely central. To follow the thread of thought, you have to know where the thread is coming from, where it originates, thus the importance of the larger-sized text that was the title.

In the late Nineteenth Century, books,but especially magazines and newspapers began to contain images, drawings and later photographs. In the early Twentieth Century, the reading audience became more sensitive to the context provided by design and layout, especially as displayed and developed in magazines. Also, with the development of movies, the use of text to orient watchers existed in titles, and before sound was introduced, to establish and maintain context in the silent movies.

Both text and image were accessed visually and thus the relationship between text and image was strengthening, but it wasn’t until mid Twentieth Century that a profound shift occurred. Image had been provided to readers in order to illustrate what text “said”. With the development of more sophisticated technology and more image-focussed readers, both obvious from the very popular Life magazine, text increasingly became a commentary on image.

With the advent of the computer as a writing tool, the word “font” became know outside of publishing circles, and knowledge about the contextual impact of font and layout design began spreading. (For a very accessible introduction, see Robin Williams’s The Non-Designer’s Design Book.) At the same time, television commercials were providing textual components in increasingly creative ways, and chunks of text began to be treated as visual entities. The computer made the variations increasingly possible.

With words or short phrases being flown into the frame, expanded, altered, and backed by music and sound effects, the context for the word(s) the viewer had automatically decoded became, not other words, or a textual train of thought, but the the effects of movement, colour and size variations, and sound.

When text is image, its denotative aspect, its dictionary meaning, is reduced, and its connotative meanings, the feelings associated with the word, become dominated by the way it is displayed visually and its aural setting. When text is image, it means what it looks and sounds like.

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