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Visual language
by Juan C. DĂĽrsteler [message nş 120]

Written language is just a particular case of visual language. In fact there are many visual languages that appear to share common rules. Thinking about the visual language can help us to convey our messages in a more effective way.

When you think about language, immediately one associates it to the idea of spoken or written language. A sequential language in nature, where symbols are followed by other symbols and the narration they build makes concepts and/or emotions emerge in our minds.

It’s not that strange, according to one of my favourite dictionaries, that visual language doesn’t exist, there’s no way of finding the term. But it does. With more or less well known syntax and better or worse articulated grammar we have been using graphics for millennia to express ideas and concepts. These are non sequential languages where drawings transmit, sometimes in a much more effective way, the same ideas and even feelings.

We can think of multiple visual languages with very specific syntactic rules. For example, traffic signs or musical notation provide you with a meaningful and precise visual language. We can also speak about the visual language of bar charts or corporate organisation charts.



Danger Plane


+ = Danger due to proximity of a place where aircraft fly frequently at low altitude over the road.
Mandatory Car Mandatory road for cars
+ = Drivers of automobiles, exccept motorcycles without sidecar are obliged to use the road at the entrance of which this signa is placed.

Visual language : traffic signals. The red triangle indicates danger. The plane indicates that aircraft fly at low altitude in the neighborhood, so we are near an airport and there's danger of finding a plane flying unsuspectedly over us. The blue circle indicates a mandatory road. Wit the car inside, automobiles are obliged to drive through the road where the sign is placed.
Note that the blue sign could contain the plane and would be a syntactically valid signal, although it would be meaningless. The same happens with written language, where you can write a valid sentence completely meaningless.
Adapted by the author form Engelhardt's thesis.

For traffic signs, the combination of a few geometric figures like triangles, squares and circles along with a set of colours and symbols including cars, bicycles and even horns allows us to express a wide range of prohibitions, obligations and traffic situations in an unambiguous way, perceptible in a fraction of a second.

Strange as it could seem, written language is just a particular case of visual language. Both in its ideographic side or in the phonetic one, a limited set of symbols along with a set of specific rules like syntax and grammar allow you to interpret and reconstruct the sounds of spoken language and, hence, its meaning. So that written language is just one among many examples of the possible visual languages.

Yuri Engelhardt, in his excellent Ph D thesis titled “The Language of Graphics” considers that graphic representations can and in fact do use their own “individual, very specific visual language”. This means that, often, the design of a graphic representation of information implies not only the translation of that information into a visual language, but the creation of the visual language itself.

Despite the multiplicity of possible visual languages, according to Engelhardt all of them seem to share many general principles. The goal of his thesis is to explore these principles, of which we’ll speak more in detail in future articles.

No language, even if it’s a visual one, is self explanatory. Any language has to be explained to us and we have to learn it. Spoken language is learnt slowly from the experience of our environment and the interaction with people surrounding us. Written language is learn in a systematic way at school. The rest of visual languages have to be explained or have to be based on a set of previous knowledge easily represented in a graphic way.

In the same way that spoken language can be boring, complicated and obscure or an example of eloquence, visual language can be equally murky and unclear or extremely easy to understand. This means that visual rhetoric, the technique to express oneself effectively, also exists.

And, what is the practical application of all this?. For example, when we are building a graphic presentation we can’ forget that

  • Be it with text or not we are always using a visual language.

  • The great power of elaborating a specific visual language for our purposes can help us to transmit our message in a much more effective way than written language does.

  • That visual language has to be explained to the audience or has to be based on such common conventions as to be self explanatory. Many times the explanation of the meaning of the visual language used constitutes the presentation itself.

  • Conventions used to build a visual language have a non negligible cultural component. Using for example a hand with the thumb pointing downwards in front of an auditorium that doesn’t know what use the Romans gave to it, could require an explanation in order to avoid misunderstanding. 

In the end, visual languages abound wherever we go and are surrounding us continuously. Knowing the general rules that all of them have in common can help us to express ourselves visually, more effectively.

* Yuri Engelhardt, "The Language of Graphics“  ISBN 90-5776-089-4 Institute for Logic, Language and Computation Dissertation series 2002-03 Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Links of this issue:

http://cf.hum.uva.nl/computerlinguistiek/yuri/   Yuri Engelhardt's personal page
http://www.illc.uva.nl   Institute for Logic, Language and Computation, Universiteit van Amsterdam
http://www.illc.uva.nl/Publications/reportlist.php?Series=DS&Year=2002   List of ILLC publications that includes Engelhardt's thesis
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