Is ‘dealing with visuals’ an ethnic skill ?

A comparison between different approaches for psyops poster designs and what we can learn from them

There is a common norm when it comes to effective communication; ‘keep it simple and keep it visual’. From digital marketing to BTL, every designer practices this as the mantra of effective communication. Because humans are, by nature, very visual beings. 30% of our brains are engaged in the task of processing visual information, as compared with only 8% for touch and 3% for hearing. With so much of our brain dedicated to the task, our visual senses are extraordinary. Reading text is a visual task, but we don’t understand text as quickly as we do images. This is a result of processing efficiency; some visual stimuli require more effort to process than others. This is the common knowledge and insight when it comes to image and text literacy. But on a few occasions I observed some deviations among sinhala and tamil communities from this common norm, which led me to think ‘are we really bad with reading visuals but good with words ? ‘

A doubt started with a disappointment

In the latter part of the 3rd year of my bachelor degree (2012), I started to self study psychological operations of WWII and propaganda related to that political scenario. This opened me to an ocean of visual propaganda materials and techniques of effective communication. With the thrill of this discovery, I made the scope of my final year thesis on black propaganda of the 4th EELAM war in Sri Lanka. After interviewing diverse parties who were directly related to the war, I got my hands on 14 black propaganda leaflets/posters which were distributed in the north from the beginning to the end of 4th EELAM war. The high expectations of analysing visuals and short effective taglines slowly started to diminish when one by one. I went through the leaflets attached to the data collection. None of them were visually biased and they were full of long paragraphs. They hardly contained graphics or any visuals. However, similar to famous examples from WWII archives, the material were either highly emotional or sarcastic. In both styles they have exaggerated a situation with the help of visuals such as illustrations, photomontages and cartoons. Below you can see 3 psyops leaflets from 4th EELAM war from my collection and only one of it contains an image which is also poor when it comes to effectiveness. My first conclusion was none of the involved parties in war (SL army, LTTE or Karuna Party) possessed the necessary skill or resource to execute a visually rich element ,and due to poor duplex facilities, it would have been hard to reproduce those types of images. That was what I believed until I got an opportunity to speak with the commanding chief of the Sri Lanka Army Psyops division. His explanation for my question was really interesting — that it was not a lack of resources or skills which hindered the process. They have tried psyops as per the books of western propaganda and the feedback was negative. Therefore they started to focus on writing comprehensive essays for their leaflets which were comparatively more effective than pure visuals.

Is this a habit ? and does our art and literature reflect this ?

I personally believe Sri lankans as a nation (Both sinhala and Hindu traditions) are weak in dealing with visuals or visual arts. Take the development of literature against the development of painting as an example. The Polonnaruwa era paintings were by far the most sophisticated we could ever produce yet literature continuously showed progressive development. A number of advanced story structures and writings can be observed in our writing compared to our somewhat basic painting techniques. Maybe this is an attempt to over-summarize a complex situation yet comparing the skills of the common folk can further reflect this quality. Sri Lankan folk people are good with poetry as in general but poor in their artistic skills.

This led to my second exploration on the topic, Are we alone as Sri Lankans in this situation ?. This common quality can be further observed in many asian countries. Below are some psyops posters from Vietnam and Malaysia which show the same non-visual approach.

While exploring the topic further, I came across a few articles which tried to analyse the messy character oriented designs in Chinese web. One of the Chinese users who participated in a study explained that visuals are not providing enough details for him to make decisions.This shows their expectations from the text and their expectations of details.

‘It’s simple (Visual biased web designs), clean, and no useless information. But the problem is, while it doesn’t have any useless information, it also has less useful information — I can find nothing useful in these simple links. All this introduction of the functionality is just playing with words, with no real meat, no real content at all.”

A participator from the Chinese research.

As some researchers and designers argue, these design values are slowly moving towards common western norms. Yet, this is an interesting phenomenon to expand a study in the field of communication design. This is a unique phenomenon in communication which is in contrast to western values of design (design axiology). Discovering new knowledge or user behaviors in this aspect might open new possibilities in many communication channels.

Something from an on going research

One of our students from the B.Des program is currently conducting a research on a similar area , where he tries to understand the user preferences for language and visuals when it comes to local user interface navigation. He is currently testing this idea with more than 100 participants from different geographical locations and genders. Already it shows that most Sri Lankans prefer language as a way to confirm the instructions and they expect it to understand the tone/exact meaning (To clear doubts). This research may be able to shed some new perspective on why our designs (especially mobile apps and e-services) fails when it comes to rural or suburban context. Further this area of visual literacy should be researched more before jumping into common practices and norms in design.

Dilina Janadith | Colombo 2019 August

Design enthusiast / design researcher