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“Words tell you what to think. Pictures tell you how to think.” Hmm.


“Words tell you what to think. Pictures tell you how to think” – I saw this in a tweet from @redeye, but this is not aimed at him, he was quoting a website and I thank him for bringing it up.

My first reaction was “Great quote”; my next was to tweet “I’ll use it as my motto”.

But then I started thinking it through.

The first sentence can be right sometimes – often even – but it is incomplete.  To start with, it depends on how the words are used.

Genuine questions (not leading ones) don’t tell us what to think.  Expressions of personal concern or doubt, don’t either.  But the killer that shows the gap up best is that there are many uses of words that do tell us how to think: Written explanations of critical thinking, for example; descriptions of fallacy in argument; advice on decision-making; or a judge’s summing up for the jury all tell us how to think, not what to think.

“Pictures tell you how to think” then – how about that?  They certainly can – often.  Look at Exploratree – that must be one of the best visual approaches on the web to telling children how to think, and it’s one I’ve blogged about before.

But pictures can go the other way as well.  Data visualizations can present slanted interpretations that try to tell us what to think.  Here’s a case in point from A study of infographics:

Much as visual thinking is embedded in my work and play and while the quote sounds neat, that needs the application of a little critical thinking.


  1. Hi Roy,

    As a super sweeping generalisation I love this quote. It encompasses everything I love and hate about words and offers an alternative perspective in two short and sweet sentences.

    I’d quite like to see this post as just an image to see how differently my brain would process it… 🙂


  2. This quote makes me think critically. I got your point Roy. And right now, your words tell me what to think.