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Visual Design
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 34]

Graphic design is not only a matter of aesthetics. It can make the difference between communicating effectively with your computer or not.

When we are in front of a computer program, a web site or whatever piece of software in general, the first thing and the last thing we see is its graphical appearance. The colours, the icons, its typefaces will be our companions during the many hours we stay in front of these machines. More frequently than desirable we pay very little attention to the impact that the visual elements have in getting our message across and ease the understanding of it.

In a wide sense, Visual Design can be defined as the management of visual information. In the interesting book "Designing Visual Interfaces, Communication Oriented Techniques", Kevin Mullet and Darrell Sano distinguish between the disciplines related to "the user's experience of a form in the context of a specific task or problem". Among them are included communication-oriented graphic design, industrial design and architecture.

They separate on one hand the predominantly visual disciplines, like painting, sculpture, filmmaking or photography, whose goals are primacy of aesthetics and message communication over function. While on the other hand are the disciplines more oriented towards design in order to obtain a particular function, like engineering, where aesthetics is subordinated to the function (the buyers of a car are rarely interested in the aesthetics of the carburettor).

From that standpoint, Visual Design tries to achieve the synergy between functionality and design in order to improve communication in an effective way. In this context communication should be understood as the exchange of messages or signs between two entities with a specific goal. One of the entities is an animated one (the user) and pursues an objective with functional contents (for example writing an article with a word processor or to inhabit a house) and the other would be inanimate (the computer, a web site, an object, the interior of a house…)

In general Visual Design ends up using some visual language. Visual languages are common to many cultures and range from cave paintings to complex electronic circuitry diagrams. As any other language, visual languages have a set of symbols or basic designs (a formal vocabulary) and a set of rules that describe how to combine them (a visual syntax). In order to understand this topic in more depth, see for example the book "Visual Language Theory" by Marriot and Meyer.

As is common to all languages, the visual one also requires a learning phase. Musical notation, for example, is by no means trivial and requires considerable effort to reach an acceptable level of fluency.

Especially after the appearance of the windowing systems like MacOS and later MS Windows and Xwindow with Motif in the UNIX world, a revolution has taken place regarding the user interface in the world of personal computing. As a consequence, the applications have been flooded with icons, menu bars and all types of iconography that is more or less easy to identify and understand but not always very well designed and sometimes quite hard to master.

Recently I bought some powerful software to treat and create images to replace my traditional tools. Although many of the icons are very similar, the philosophy of the program is completely different. It was quite hard to get used to and to begin to make diagrams and drawings efficiently.

As we shall see in the forthcoming articles a good mastering of the visual language and design techniques can make a difference when communicating with the system.

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