I have always tried, and urged my students to try, to think of writing as more than a mere accompaniment to graphic design. Rather, it is perhaps its most deeply resonant evocation: the degree to which language can imply, conjure, suggest, describe, imagine, tease, amplify or otherwise evoke a design idea is, to a great extent, one of the more compelling ways of making design accessible to the public.
Language, in the service of the visual, is a conceptual catalyst: and in Umberto Eco's latest book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, words meet pictures in a captivating and indeed, an astonishing way.
Readers familiar with Eco's prolific body of work (118 books and counting) may not be surprised. After all, many of his earlier works have gravitated to symbolic, romantic and literary associations that challenge existing notions of reality, chronology and memory. Of these, it is the question of memory that dominates this particular book: the protagonist, a rare book dealer in Milan, has lost his long-term memory and retreats to his family's house in the country, whereupon he engages in a kind of archaeological dig of the mind. Surrounded by books, magazines, records and photographs, he attempts to reconstruct his own lapsed self-history. Visual stimuli become, in the course of this story, landmines for memory retrieval.
Yet in spite of their glorious presence in the book, the inclusion of early-Twentieth century ephemera reads as a kind of separate narrative, a loosely-gathered timeline of Italian graphic propaganda. Conversely, it is in the impassioned language of the book that the images resonate most fully. Eco's versatility as a semiotician is perhaps most remarkably demonstrated in an early scene in which the protagonist's memory loss is challenged by a photograph of his own late parents. "You tell me these two were my parents, so now I know but it's a memory that you've given me," he confesses to his wife. "I'll remember the photo from now on, but not them."
How does visual evidence sanction our memories, and when does collective memory overtake our individual, and arguably more meaningful references? More than 12,000 oral histories documenting the events of September 11, 2001 will be made public today, according to a story in this morning's New York Times. Will new information be revealed? Will old wounds be re-opened? Will the verbal prove more evocative than the visual evidence now so saturated into our public consciousness of that tragic day? In a climate so overwhelmingly dominated by visual codes, there is something deeply persuasive about the simplicity of pure language. And for those of us who spend our lives thinking visually, it is a reminder that how we express ideas is, at best, a gesture of blind faith: memory, reality, modernity, humanity all have existed for centuries and will continue to do so, documented in the various vernaculars that time, space, budget and appropriateness will permit. At the end of the day, our memories tell us where we were, what we believed, who we are and why. As we bear witness to the inevitable permutations that characterize human frailty writ large, the recording and preservation of memory is a cultural imperative. In this view, we would do well to remember that pictures do not always speak louder than words.