The power of visual language

21 May 2014

Last night I watched a BBC documentary on artist Michael Craig-Martin.

I’ve long believed Fine Art has an important influence on our tastes and beliefs. Even if you don’t pay much attention to it, or think contemporary art is any good — it’s like catwalk fashion: ambitious concepts intended to provoke and inspire further thought much more than for mainstream consumption. But, over time, new ideas and aesthetics do filter into our general consciousness and belief system.

At the end of the documentary Craig-Martin makes a fascinating comment about our ability to read one dimensional drawings. He articulates it better than I can here, so worth watching the show if you can. But he explains how fascinating it is that from an incredibly young age (sometimes just a couple of months) we can read drawings of objects. We can see a picture of a ball and both know it is a picture and that it is a picture of a particular object.

The real wonderment to me is that we are able to see one-dimensional images as the thing they represent, It’s extraordinary if you think about how much of our lives depend on the ability to see something that isn’t actually the thing itself.

Michael Craig-Martin

This ability is the foundation of language. And because the foundation of our language is visual — it means our ability to read visual messages is quicker and stronger than our ability to read text.

This is something most of us are aware of when designing interfaces of any kind. We know we need to keep messages and instructions to the user as short as possible, so they are easy to interpret and digest. And we also know that a pictorial representation of the message is better still.

You might at this stage be thinking: “Great — tell me something I don’t know” — but the fact this is stuff we all do know — innately — is kind of the point. I think it’s important to sometimes look behind what we know and to understand its origins. Some of our design beliefs are influenced by technology or fashion — and these will change. Others are influenced by human nature and are unlikely to ever change.

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