Can authoring using graphics = no localisation?

Subject: Can authoring using graphics = no localisation?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 23 Feb 2001 09:19:20 -0500

Mark Emson is <<... looking into role of authoring/reading texts that
contain only/mainly graphics.>>

A lot of work has been done on this already; William Horton has discussed it
in some detail in his book on icons and in many of his older articles on
visual communication. Do a bit of reading to orient yourself before you
begin (so you can avoid going down paths that have already been shown to be
blind alleys), but be aware that you'll be confronting two very difficult

First, graphics are far more equivocal in their meaning than you might
think, particularly for anything that's not an absolutely concrete object,
and if you add cross-cultural differences, you can find yourself in trouble
quickly. The example of a telephone icon is too simple to be broadly
applicable; what icons would you use to indicate "install", "delete", "make
a backup copy", and so on? In terms of cultural differences, one classic
example is the North American "thumbs up" sign (which means "well done" or
"can I hitch a ride with you?"), which can mean "stick it where the sun
don't shine" in Italy and (I believe) other parts of Europe. Then, do you
sequence steps from left to right (English etc.), right to left (Hebrew
etc.), or top to bottom (some oriental languages)? Numbering the steps
helps, but isn't obvious to everyone in all cultures (I'm quoting something
old in one of Horton's books). Graphical communication gets complicated

Second, you quickly confront the problem of the reader's learning curve and
developing a consistent grammar for graphics. (Jacques Bertin has done
wonderful work on the latter problem, but never fully solved it.)
Pictographic languages such as Chinese are far, far more difficult to learn
than letter-based languages such as English, even though they can be every
bit as flexible and powerful for a skilled writer. But in the absence of any
well-known and broadly accepted grammar for visual images, you face the same
problems that the inventors of Esperanto faced (and never solved): getting
people to adopt something sensible that would facilitate communication, when
they're already comfortable and proficient with something less efficient.

Then you face other problems, such as creating indexes: does a circle or
circular graphic come before or after a square or square-based graphic, and
what about triangles and irregular shapes? And what about typing the
characters in the first place? Imagine how slow it would be to type an
instruction purely from the Windows Character Map instead of typing directly
from the keyboard! (Chinese authors face this problem every time they try to
write in a word processor; there are many effective workarounds, but none is
as easy to use as the English characters that can be accessed from the
standard keyboard.)

<<What I am interested in doing is expanding and developing the range of
simple graphical characters & font sets that can be used to construct
meaningful instructions. As you know, nearly every PC has a set of fonts
such as Dingbats or Webdings but is there room for more.>>

That's a more interesting and practical goal. You'll never (realistically)
replace text entirely with words, but you can certainly come up with
graphics that make it easier to communicate in fewer words. You'll still
need local-language experts to confirm that you haven't inadvertently trod
upon any taboos, picked a mixed visual metaphor for that culture, or used an
incorrect visual idiom. Complex and difficult stuff, and not something
you'll easily codify.

<<Would there be an advantage to using a word processor and simply typing
these characters?>>

You'd certainly avoid the problem of adding yet another graphics format to
the list word processors, DTP software, and Web browsers must handle, but in
exchange, you acquire the usual font-based problems: making sure that the
Mac and PC character sets match, that the font is freely available for
everyone--and that everyone is willing to install the font on their
computer. None of these are trivial either.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

"How are SF writers like technical writers? Well, we both write about the
things we imagine will happen in the future!"--Sue Gallagher

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