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The Primacy of the Visual Image

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog’s latest meandering film-poem, reminds us of the primacy of the visual image over any other form of human expression of thoughts, beliefs, and yearnings.

Horses, bisons, woolly mammoths, cave lions, and bears roam, gallop, and fight on the cave’s ancient walls. The paintings may be telling the story of a successful hunt, or they may be an object of worship, part of a ritual aimed to guarantee success in future hunts.

These beautiful cave paintings were discovered in 1994 in a hidden cave in Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in southern France by Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Des-champs, and Christian Hillaire. They are thought by some archaeologists to be as old as 30,000 years.

By comparison, the earliest known written language, the Sumerian language of the Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) region, dates from around 3000 BC. The Cuneiform (“wedge-shaped” letterforms) system consisted of ideographs, which are graphics that represent an idea or a concept. The visual image is the earlier – and earliest – form of communication.

Thinking in images or visualizations offers a way to loosen your perceptive and sensory ties to concrete reality, so that you can dream up new ideas and solutions to various types of problems. Or an idea might appear in a dream or a reverie. Imagining is the act of “forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses.”

The word ‘Vision’ is defined as “an experience in which a personage, thing, or event appears vividly or credibly to the mind, although not actually present.”

Here Kekulé, a German chemist, had one such vision. In 1865, after years of studying the nature of carbon-carbon bonds and trying to decipher their structure, he had a vision of a snake seizing its own tail. This image of a circular shape had finally provided the explanation for the structure of the benzene compound – it contained a six-part ring of carbon atoms. This new understanding of benzene, and hence of all aromatic compounds, proved to be very important for both pure and applied chemistry.

Visualization, whether imagined while day-dreaming, or materialized as drawings, photographs, an arrangement of objects or any other material expression, can lead to breakthrough discoveries and innovation.

Organizations can enhance their efforts to invigorate their culture and innovate by incorporating design and ­visual thinking into their development process.

The visual image can spark the imagination the way nothing else can. A picture is truly worth a thousand words.



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