Typography is the voice of the printed page. But typography is meaningless until seen by the human eye, translated into sound by the human brain, heard by the human ear, comprehended as thought, and stored as memory.”
— R. Hunter Middleton

“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.”
― David McCullough

The foundation of every format is verbal. All rests on words.

This is an inviolable principle in the commercial arts, which, unlike the fine arts, is an objective affair. That’s because in visual communication there is a typographic message at stake. The audience must receive it clearly or we’ve failed as communicators.

We might lob the ball into their court at an odd angle. Our delivery might be considered artsy. Still, it must be received in the manner it was intended with the meaning we crafted or we haven’t done our job.

Communication is a tennis match. If the person beyond the net eyeballs the incoming, yellow object without comprehension, if they don’t advance in its direction or raise their racket, then we’re playing the game by ourselves. Like the call and response of human conversation, there should be action and reaction. Words provide the kinetic energy. Comprehension keeps the ball in play.

Words, whether spoken, typographic or implied are processed in the receiver’s mind and assigned meaning. We may be producing pages or capturing conversation or shooting footage. In all cases there is a verbal dimension at work.

Even pure visual storytelling provokes the viewer, to a great extent, toward internal verbal processing as she tags and bags the input. A kaleidoscope of imagery gets a labeled file folder in the brain.

The saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words” seems a tad hyperbolic when we consider the fact that words are their own imagery. Words are deeply resonant, all by themselves. They paint pictures, they project movies on the wall of our minds. “Home” is a one-syllable word that can produce a primal reaction. It can conjure a cascade of memories, emotions and sensations. Perhaps the smell of cookies baking in the oven, comfort and safety. Or if one had a bad childhood, the pain of beatings and salty tears, shame and sadness. A rush of sights and feelings from one simple word.

Whether we’re producing a display ad, typesetting a book, giving a TED talk, developing eLearning pages or recording audio-visual matter, the foundation of all that we create is verbal. Words are the way. Do you have a way with words? If not, I encourage you to set your feet firmly in that way or else (creatively) you are likely to lose yours.

Anthony Rotolo is a writer and designer but not much of a tennis player.

Photo by Fabio Santaniello Bruun on Unsplash