this is how you would answer [in English] if I asked you what this was. It is a sign and the thing that is signified is a four legged, domesticated, omnivorous mammal. But if I wrote the word dog on the screen and asked you to visualise something in response you would all construct a different set of images and visual associations!
This is the eternal paradox that is the subject of semiotics.

The Holy Trinity by Tommasso Cassai aka Masaccio is the first painting to use linear perspective. This was a system devised by Masaccio to create the illusion of depth in a two dimensional image. This painting has been the subject of much scrutiny by artists and designers alike because it also utilises a system of visual hermetics [apparently]. The notion is that if you look at the painting your eye is deliberately taken on a journey from one 'invisible' point to another. It is a contrived and deliberate tool used to make you see the image in a particular way, the 'hierarchy' of visual information, what is more/less important, is determined by the producer while the viewr passively receives information in a pre-determined way. It is visual communication/dictation/indoctrination.

This is an image depicting a scene from the memoirs of Babur, a Prince from Samarkand in the Uzbek province. The image seems free flowing/dynamic/organic and almost baroque. But if you look more closely it is systematic. There is a hierarchy evident in the arrangement of the figurative elements and the characters who appear are generic, stripped of individual personality. They represent something, arguably they are abstracted. This enables the informed viewer to read the image accurately. Again this is systematic, a language, an agreement between producer and viewer.

The Tangram is an ancient Chinese game which comprises of seven pieces derived mathematically from a square. The object of the game is to put the pieces together to form something recognisable. The pieces must touch but not overlap, this means that each shape retains its integrity but the whole forms a shape with a specific meaning. Like words in a sentence, almost.

"Words separate" "Pictures unite" claimed Otto Neurath
Otto Neurath was a designer/philosopher working in Vienna in the early 20th Century. His Universal Silhouettes form the basis for most of the ideographic wayfinding and information systems in the world today. He strove to achieve a "humanistic visual austerity" and claimed that "those who drew educational pictures as servants of the public and not as its masters" were superior in every way. He rejected Art for Art's sake. He attempted to develop a picture language as an alternative to written script. Paradoxically his ideas and work coincided with the development of a Universal spoken language, Esperanto.

Hello Miffy.
Miffy is Dick Bruna's most famous character. Thinking about the notion of a rationalised visual language and referring back to Norm there is something austere and efficient about the way that information/narrative/character is communicated in Dick Bruna's work. It is systematic. This poses an interesting question about visual language because this is most definitely a way of working that we associate with one person, it is his style or a personal visual language. What do we mean by 'personal visual language'? and is this a contradiction in terms?

Here are examples of signs from the British road signage system. They were designed in 1963 by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert. This is a visual language that most of us are familiar with. The system uses key indicators that tell us how to behave/react to what we see, for instance imagery placed in a triangle is warning us of a potential danger or a situation that we need to be wary of and prepare for. Who decided that a triangle should mean such a thing?
This is an example of how we collectively agree on the meaning of something, it is an example of meaning becoming detached from seeing, of abstraction, of language.


This is an image from one of the remaining Mayan Codices, possibly it is familiar?
The Mayans used ideograms [although this is a debatable description as the term grapheme or morpheme may be more accurate]to document their history/religion/science/prophecies/agricultural cycles/culture etc. The scribes who produced these works were said to be communing with the Gods often using an imagined spiritual realm as the frame of reference. The point is that this is an almost lost visual language, it is specific to a culture and therefore highly problematic for us to decipher but it is image based. How can this be if we aspire to work with a language that is universal? Perhaps visual language is inextricably linked with spoken language is inextricably linked with era or epoch?

I am interested in the complexities and paradoxes of visual language and the difficulties that we inevitably encounter when attempting to make images that communicate to a mass audience. Numerous approaches have been tried and various systems implemented with more/less success but the relationship between speech based language and visual language is a complicated one. Above is the cover image from Norm's book Die Dinge [The Things]. It is worth looking at. Norm attempt to rationalise the communication of visual things by developing a grid based system to reduce all things to visual icons/ideograms/heiroglyphs. Whether or not you agree with this approach is academic the fact remains that as human beings we know that imagery has the power to communicate in a much more sophisticated and powerful way than can be quantified by words but we wrestle with its inefficiency and ambiguity and its reliance on the interelationship between subjectivity and objectivity on the part of the viewer.
I said to David when we looked at this book, "look, its a speech bubble" he replied
" or a wingmirror!"

There is another way to explore ‘language and design’ which is to consider what is meant by that word ‘language’. This word is sometimes used to describe pictures and objects but more often to describe something else. A quick Internet search gave 14 definitions of language most of which described the ‘something else’, for instance;
“communication by voice in the distinctively human manner, using arbitrary sounds in conventional ways with conventional meanings; speech.” However there is another way of defining language, one that sets itself in opposition to the abstract and arbitrary nature of speech and is in concert with a means of communicating familiar to designers and image makers. It is one that has its roots in the earliest forms of communication and belies [or so some believe] deep rooted structures of ‘signs’ that we subconsciously use to say something to each other or make ourselves understood. “the system of linguistic signs or symbols considered in the abstract (opposed to speech ). “any set or system of such symbols as used in a more or less uniform fashion by a number of people, who are thus enabled to communicate intelligibly with one another.”

Quick, Quick, Slow…

The act of describing ones work, or more precisely the ideas behind it presents opportunities for how to pace your description. If we consider the typical novel, the author has certain expectations of how we, the reader might, encounter their work. More often than not sitting or laying down and dedicating a period of time of concentration to read the work. We can of course also consider the untypical novel, such as James Joyce's 'Ulysses'. In this the final chapter of the book has no punctuation. It forces the reader to change reading speed and create their own pauses and pacing. In terms of how this translates to printed language examples within design we can cast our vision back to the early 1990s and West Coast America. A certain David Carson. But how many of his immense army of fans realise just what he was attempting, behind the revolutionary graphic language?

Maxim Gorky:
"An artist is a man who digests his own subjective impressions and knows how to find a general objective meaning to them, and how to express them in a convincing form."


Tell it like it is

Adrian Shaughnessy:
"The great immutable law of making a design
presentation is this: tell your audience what
you are going to show them and then show
it to them. That's all there is to it."

So why look at Language and Design? Well simply put, and in anticipation of sparking a debate, I strongly believe that the skill of explaining one's design work and being able to offer a rationale for the concept(s) behind it, is as important, if not more so than being able to come up with an idea in the first place. Armed with a stack of ideas but lacking the vocabulary to articulate them (verbal or text form) could render the designer effectively redundant, certainly in terms of answering a design brief. 

OK, so not very accommodating of the 'inner fine artist' but the subjects of the Design Cluster are firmly placed in the service of the public, whichever public that might be.

So once you have your design idea, the first thing you 'design' is your rationale to explain it to your audience. To do that you need to think about the language(s) that audience understands. 

The 'thingness of things'

In terms of children's language acquisition and development, James Britton in 'Language and Learning', suggests that as they grow and their vocabulary and understanding increase, a fundamental change takes place. Namely, there is a shift from 'what is essentially play to what is essentially work'. This is marked by a change from the potential delight in (and of) things, with words used to describe them that 'stay close to' those things, towards a proper 'respect' for words which moves them away from the things they represent. The inference being here, that something is lost.