Media, and its related technologies, over the past 100 years has moved us from a literary, left-brain dominated, society to a visual, right-brain focused society. Photography, ‘moving pictures’, television, and computers have all contributed to a new focus on the image, and moved us away from our print technologies. The late Leonard Shlain, author of the ground-breaking book “The Alphabet vs. The Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image” argued that this process is taking us full circle, as our goddess-worshipping ancestors ten thousand years ago were image based, and lacked the aggressiveness, hierarchy, linear thinking and male domination so prevalent today.
Shlain contends that many academics and intellectuals today have it all wrong with their hand-wringing about plummeting literary and reading and writing standards. A shift toward a more balanced right/left hemisphere will ultimately be a positive thing for our societies, he says. His thesis is fascinating and controversial. I grew up with a love of books and reading and have watched with great consternation and anxiety as bookstores close by the thousands and younger generations take less and less interest in reading. While I would love to think that all my worries about the dumbing down of humanity are, in fact, baseless and that we will evolve just fine by simply staring at images, I’m not so sure.
When “USA Today” was launched in September 1982, it was the first newspaper to incorporate big color photos and splashy graphics. It was appealing to the television generation , even going so far as to design the boxes containing the newspapers to look like television sets. Newspapers would never be the same. Textbook manufacturers have also had to radically redesign their books over the last 30 years to incorporate more photos, drawings, and graphics. Pick up any text today, from kindergarten thru post-grad level, and 50% of any given page will be given over to images and photos.
I have been thinking about all this recently as I’ve noticed a distinct trend in the restaurant industry. Here in Asia especially, the trend of putting photos in menus has taken off and gone to extreme levels. Way back in 1989, the brilliant comedian Bill Hicks performed his ‘Sane Man’ routine and mocked the Denny’s restaurant chain for using pictures on their menus. At that time, there were only a handful of restaurants which did this, and Hicks saw it as a classic example of a business catering to- contributing to- a dumbed down society. He metamorphosed into an ape-man and entered the restaurant, needing to use only grunts and growls and a finger to point at the dish he wanted.
If you were going to design a menu for a group of 5-year-olds, how would you do it? Perhaps use thick cardboard pages, thus making it easier for their little fingers to more easily flip thru the menu. Place only two or three items on each page. Put a big color photo underneath each selection. Sadly, this describes most menus in restaurants today, at least here in Ho Chi Minh City, 2014. With so many photos, some menus are 60 pages long. If they are not cardboard, the pages are at least plastic laminated. Many restaurant menus now require punched holes with a three ring binder. Even drinks need a photo: a glass of orange juice. A coffee. A cup of tea. And on and on.
But wait, it gets worse. Or, at least more weird. As if expensive and detailed color photos on menus weren’t enough, many Japanese restaurants construct elaborate plastic reproductions of each dish. In order to display them properly, they have had to build large display cases , glass-enclosed and stretching for 10 feet or more. One can only hope that these restaurant owners put as much effort into making real food in their kitchens as they do constructing these bizarre plastic recreations. Visiting a restaurant with just a simple one- page menu on nice bond paper, with no televisions playing and soft candlelight and old-fashioned incandescent lighting is feeling more and more like a trip back in time. These trends in restaurants, like all the other trends we are witnessing in our society, seem irreversible. Perhaps I will do an experiment, in Bill Hicks’ honor, and venture into a restaurant making only ape sounds and pointing at my favorite picture on the menu. Who needs language anymore when we have such pretty photos?