Pictures, words, info, glyphs, symbols, thoughts? (Take II)

Subject: Pictures, words, info, glyphs, symbols, thoughts? (Take II)
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 12:32:09 -0400


Bill Swallow reported: <<Visual information - if designed correctly (simple
and direct), can be processed by the human mind extremely quickly.>>

Very true. Those of us still alive today are the results of ancestors who
could very quickly distinguish between large predators planning to feed on
us and small prey animals planned as feed for us. <g> However, I pick nits
for a living, so:

<<You don't need to be able to read to know that a pictograph of a skull and
bones, wedge between an arm and a hand, or a red triangle with an
exclamation point in it mean DANGER.>>

While you may not need to read, you may need substantial amounts of cultural
literacy to understand the pictograph; the first one, for example, can mean
corrosive, poison, or "beware of pirates"--or it may mean "this way to the
cemetary" or "special Hallowe'en sale on skeleton costumes" or "Kilroy was
here... a very long time ago". Or even "tomb up ahead--tomb raiders please
prepare your shovels and pickaxes and make sure you have enough treasure
bags".

This is precisely the problem faced by graphic designers trying to produce
warning signs for nuclear waste repositories: the symbols you choose to
communicate a message are very strongly biased by your cultural assumptions.
One particularly poor idea I saw proposed was a "electrons and nucleus"
model of the atom, which made the assumption that 10K years in the future,
people would make the connection between a pretty picture and radioactivity.
Not bloody likely.

Similarly, a wedge between an arm and a hand may mean either "do this and
get your hand hacked off" or "arrow pointing at the site of carpal tunnel
syndrome to remind you to be kind to your wrists". And the red triangle with
an exclamation mark bears no direct resemblance to "danger" or "pay
attention" or anything much else for that matter: the exclamation point is a
symbol whose meaning is more or less universally understood to modern
westerners, but I'm not sure it's used in non-Western alphabets.

I stick to my guns: pictographs of various sorts are highly subjective, and
thus, their meanings must be learned. The same is true of words, but we have
tools (dictionaries and editors) for helping us to use words consistently;
we lack such tools for graphics, despite efforts by luminaries such as
Jacques Bertin to develop a visual grammar.

--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
www.raycomm.com/techwhirl/usersadvocate.html
"Writing, in a way, is listening to the others' language and reading with
the others' eyes."--Trinh T. Minh-Ha, "Woman native other"

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