Pictures, words, info, glyphs, symbols, thoughts?

Subject: Pictures, words, info, glyphs, symbols, thoughts?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 15 Jul 2002 09:16:21 -0400

Missed the original, but the quoted part of the message said: <<Mankind
stopped trying to communicate with little pictures about 3000 years ago>>

I think the Chinese might beg to differ. <g> But the basic point is a good
one: understanding symbols is a learned skill, not something done based
solely on visual intuition. That is, neither Chinese characters nor the
icons in Word are intuitively obvious to even a small majority of the
viewers who see them; their meanings must be learned and memorized, and
where the use of a symbol contradicts prevailing usage (e.g., using a
diskette icon for formatting a disk rather than saving the open file), users
run into problems.

The great leap forward made possible by replacing images with words and
letters is undoubtedly what the original poster was getting at, and that's a
crucial point: words combine the power of abstraction with the ability to
standardize meanings much more readily than with images. Part of this is
simply how we're trained; the Chinese are every bit as good at abstract
thought as we are, even though their language is obviously far more
graphical than ours. Part of it is inherent in the nature of words vs.
images: because words themselves have no direct relationship to the real
world (graphics do), their meanings must be agreed upon, rather than
inferred by the viewer. Chinese characters work for the same reason: because
the meaning of the characters is universally agreed upon by the readers in
much the same way English speakers using the same dialect agree on word

* In doing some research for a trip to China this fall, I've repeatedly come
across the warning that speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin can have
difficulty understanding each other speak, but have a much easier time
understanding each other's writing. More anecdotal evidence!

I read an article a few years back (maybe something by Bill Horton?) that
reported the results of a case study of icons. The researchers found that
not only were even "obvious" icons interpreted in a broad range of ways, but
worse yet, users actually memorized the positions of the icons more than
they memorized the images themselves. You can prove this to your own
satisfaction by sneaking into a colleague's office and using Word's
"customize" menu choice to rearrange the icons in their toolbars, then
watching them start to use the software... not that I've ever done this
myself, you understand. <g>

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada
"User's advocate" online monthly at
"Writing, in a way, is listening to the others' language and reading with
the others' eyes."--Trinh T. Minh-Ha, "Woman native other"

Your monthly sponsorship message here reaches more than
5000 technical writers, providing 2,500,000+ monthly impressions.
Contact Eric (ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com) for details and availability.
Save $600: Create great-looking Help files and software demos with
RoboHelp Deluxe. Get RoboHelp and RoboDemo - our new demo software - for one
low price. OR Save $100 on RoboHelp Office in June with our mail-in rebate.
Go to
You are currently subscribed to techwr-l as: archive -at- raycomm -dot- com
To unsubscribe send a blank email to leave-techwr-l-obscured -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Send administrative questions to ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com -dot- Visit for more resources and info.


Previous by Author: How do you improve your technical writing skills?
Next by Author: Pictures, words, info, glyphs, symbols, thoughts? (Take II)
Previous by Thread: Re: Legal issues in XSL-FO
Next by Thread: RE: Pictures, words, info, glyphs, symbols, thoughts?

What this post helpful? Share it with friends and colleagues:

Sponsored Ads