The Power of a Picture

The picture of a limp 3-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned at sea struck a worldwide chord, melted hearts and galvanized humanitarian action.

The picture of a limp 3-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned at sea struck a worldwide chord, melted hearts and galvanized humanitarian action.

The immense power of imagery was reinforced last week when the face-down photo of a dead infant on a beach sparked worldwide outrage and political change.

The infant was 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Aegean Sea along his older brother and his mother as his family sought to escape war-torn Syria. The family hoped to reach Canada and start a new life.

The stark picture, which received millions of views on social, online and traditional media, touched a nerve and underscored the vulnerability of refugees. It would not be overly dramatic to say the picture changed many people's hearts.

The lapping waves washing over Aylan's tiny, limp body made the flight from hellish conditions more personal. It was easy to imagine your own child or grandchild lying dead on a beach. It was also easier to understand a more human response than erecting a razor-wire fence or denying people access to trains or railing again immigrants.

The boy's father, Abdullah Kurdi, recounted the tragedy of how a wave flipped over the 16-foot dinghy, forcing passengers, including his family, to hold on for life. First one son died, then a second and finally his wife. Kurdi said the lifejackets they wore were fake. His story may never have been heard if not for a picture.

And there was a response. German removed its quotas for Syrian refugees. Hungarians sent buses to transport refugees it early rebuffed to Austria, where Austrians welcomed them with food, water and blankets. Great Britain Prime Minister David Cameron said Aylan's picture moved him to expand his country's welcome mat.

Those responses may not be adequate to deal with the tide of refugees fleeing Syria and other countries ravaged by violence and sectarian terrorism, but the responses may not have occurred at all but for a single picture.

Every picture doesn't have the potential to sway viewpoints or change minds. However, pictures can reach places in our minds and hearts that words never visit. Pictures can reduce a complex subject to its essential simplicity. They can convey emotion. They can deliver a message at a glance.

The concept of information design is not about substituting pictures for words. Information design is all about finding the best way to show what you mean. Words can be powerful tools. So can numbers arrayed in charts. Sometimes a picture can tell the story in a unique and stirring way that is without peer.

The voice of a great picture is clear, unmistakable and hard to forget.