A short essay by Andrea Powell • First appeared 31 January 2015 in UNICEF Innovation Unit visual strategy team blog — "UNICEF Design Stories"
We hear a lot of talk in our professional community about the power of design to transcend communication barriers, and that we designers are on our way to establishing a “global visual language”. Such a language, it is said, will someday soon bring together all conceivable human concepts into one simple library of iconic representations that could be used by anyone anywhere to talk to anyone else anywhere else in the world.
The next Esperanto! A completely interconnected world! The 21st century reaching its full potential! (At least until they finish the flying cars. Where are we on those?)
All it took to shatter my own optimistic faith was a few short weeks behind the scenes of the Innovation Unit. We created simple illustrations meant to efficiently convey instructions, only to find that the objects and clothing we depicted didn’t translate to the very people we were trying to reach. We tried to turn complex concepts into generalized icons that could be used over and over again across a variety of communications, and discovered that many recipients who saw them felt we had ignored or neglected the facets of these concepts most applicable to them.
Like Hogwartian thestrals, all it took was one sighting of the death of visual understanding and I could suddenly see the potential for confusion everywhere. Take a universal, painfully human concept such as “feeling sick or unwell.” You could laboriously try to illustrate the feeling, or you could more easily depict a common accessory to illness such as a thermometer, projectile vomit, a toilet, or a roller coaster.
But imagine trying to decipher these representations if your own toilet looks completely different. Perhaps the only thermometer you’ve seen is plastic and digital, rather than glass and analog. And try describing what a roller coaster looks like, or what it’s used for — let’s face it, they’re pretty weird.
Don’t get me wrong. I still think it’s worthwhile to strive toward creating a central and widely-understood library of visual representations of as many concepts as we can. And I still think initiatives like The Noun Project are doing extremely valuable work. But as we collaborate along the way, maybe we can try a bit harder to draw in people who aren’t already involved in the conversation and see that fewer groups are being left out. Maybe we can do more research outside of contexts that are familiar to us and test that our assumptions of visual translations are valid there as well.
And perhaps to make sure that what we are creating is really and truly global, we’ll have to learn to live with a visual language that has more than one dialect.
#design #innovation #universal #socialinnovation #thenounproject