Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Word

“In the beginning was The Word,” says Saint John.

You have to say it’s a strong opening for a gospel. If you were going to write one, you’d want an opening like that. And it’s certainly not bad for a man in his 90s. There’s no Bethlehem birth, no donkeys, no shepherds, no wise men, no shining star, no melodrama. It’s straight in to the mysterious heart of the thing: “In the beginning was The Word.”

Of course, as he wrote in Greek the term he actually uses is ‘logos’. We know the word logos, but for us it is a plural and in the singular is an image. It is curious that our word for a word is a word for an image. Still with me?

It is interesting that we have separated into two disciplines what the ancient world considered one. For them word and image worked together to communicate, and since more people ‘read’ the image than the word, the Parthenon was friezed with sculptures. Images were considered to be the most powerful words. In the theatre too, words and visual representation went hand in hand. The vital ability for a writer (or orator) was imagination – that is, the ability to conjure images in the mind with words. This was true either in pnyx or agora, the legislature or marketplace.

Yet in our own time two disciplines that are separate have grown out of this unity, the visual and the verbal, and increasingly communicators are experts in one or the other of them, but rarely both.

With it has grown the notion that those involved in the image (photographers and designers) cannot read, and those involved with the word (writers and editors) cannot visualise. Were they alive today, Phidias would be considered a bit of a moron though quite handy with a chisel, and Demosthenes would be thought a visual illiterate, though a promising speech-writer.

Of course there are those who see it as their bounden duty to prove the fallacy true. Which is why an especially unpleasant part of hell is reserved for designers who do not read the text before designing, as well as for editors who are dead to matters visual.

But these days when literacy is common, designers must realise that their fundamental purpose is to enable things to be read – more easily, more swiftly, without obstacles. They should consider their work to be a form of writing, of communicating the essence. A designer who does that enhances the written word. And this is his function. It is content, and therefore meaning that must be put first. Image and design must both serve it.

So the 90-year old from Ephesus had it right. Take a look at these wonderful opening pages from St John’s gospel and see how, even in the Middle Ages, this concept of visual and verbal unity was still alive, how the very act of placing quill to parchment was an act of complete devotion to meaning. In these respectful hands, letterforms are things of immense beauty. The meaning, the word and the image become integral. For the writer (St John) and the illustrator (who would have been a Benedictine monk labouring by candle-light in a cold scriptorium over a thousand years after the words were first written) this unity of purpose gave their work great power. These works still illuminate. They show us like nothing before or since that the power of good communication lies in a unity of visual and verbal purpose.

By the Middle Ages, the text of the gospels had been rendered from Greek into Latin. These illustrations of the first page from St John’s Gospel therefore use the words: ‘In principio erat verbum et verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat verbum.’

© Roger Murphy 2008