‘I see what you mean …’

(1) We have a natural propensity for expressing ourselves visually, which is perhaps best illustrated by children. From a very early age all children paint, draw and make images freely. It’s an activity that is often unprompted and largely untutored – apart from introducing them to the materials they need. Much of the charm of a child’s painting comes from its honesty and innocence. Their creations are unadulterated and unfiltered transmissions of their thoughts. It’s a visual ability that we seem to loose in later life – an unfettered and instinctive mental capacity that even the great artists, like Mattisse and Picasso, made lifelong efforts to rekindle.

(2) The visual language, in common with other forms of communication, is a means by which we can express ideas, realise thoughts and share information. It can be instrumental in shaping opinion, changing attitudes and it can inspire. It has structure, meaning and grammar – images can all be ‘read’. It has a dynamic vocabulary that develops and adapts constantly to social and cultural change. It is our oldest and most widely used form of communication. Cave paintings in Lascaux, France, dating from 15,000 BC, tell us about prehistoric life long before we had a written means of doing so. They are visual notes from our past.

(3) Historically, the development of a visual language is common to all human groups. It’s a phenomenon that occurred quite naturally. The aboriginal groups of Australia, for instance, have for centuries passed down their cultural history and identity from generation to generation by verbal and pictorial means. And still do. In contrast, a written language was the achievement of very few cultures until relatively recently.

(4) Visual communication is everywhere: as road signage, in manuals and maps, in movies and on TV, on our breakfast serial packaging, in photographic images, as body language, on a shop front, graffiti, as a national flag, in newspaper and magazine, in architecture, on mobile phones screens, in advertising, as the Nike brand. The way in which we react to the properties of images and signs has three distinct levels; firstness, secondness and thirdness. Firstness is the sense of something. It could be described as a feeling or mood. If an image makes us feel happy then this could be said to be a function of this level. Secondness is the level of fact. The physical relation of one thing to another. A traffic light has this level of fact. Thirdness is a mental level. It brings the first two categories together in a relationship or convention. The association we have with the ‘Stars and Stripes’ and the United States is a mental relationship which relies on convention.

(5) In the early school years, children are constantly encouraged to produce images, and to illustrate their written work. Teachers comment on these illustrations as much as they do on the written part of the text, though perhaps not in the same vein. Unlike writing, illustrations are not ‘corrected’ or subject to detailed criticism – ‘this needs more work’, ‘not clear’, and so on. They are seen as self-expression rather than communication. (i) By the time children are beyond their first two years of secondary schooling, the visual content of their work has largely disappeared. In as much as visual images continue, they have become maps, diagrams and charts. This systematic fazing out of expressive and descriptive illustration from the school curriculum gives a particular prominence to one kind of communication – writing. Being able to read and write fluently is now the most essential goal of our education system. No surprises here since literacy has, for centuries, been viewed as one of the essential achievements of a developing culture. So much so that, in western culture particularly, we’ve made a clear distinction between us – with a written language ‘advanced’, and them – without a written language ‘primitive’. The prominence that is now given to written literacy marginalises the visual language and devalues it as an effective and articulate form of communication. And with visual literacy so underdeveloped at the level of both teaching and learning, many students leave formal education with only a very rudimentary knowledge of image making and image reading.

(6) Writing is a form of visual communication. The modern alphabet is a series of stylised visual symbols which represent sounds and, when grouped together appropriately, form words. Although lower case letters are a relatively recent invention, most of the upper case letterforms can be traced back to specific pictorial beginnings. Capital ‘A’ started life as a pictogram – a rudimentary mark, which had social significance. Originally it was a Phoenician symbol and represented ‘aleph’ which meant ‘ox’ and was drawn the other way up to indicate the head and horns of the animal. Both Egyptians and Greek scribes adopted the symbol but drew it on its side because it was quicker. About 500 BC, when writing became more standardised, the sign for ox had finally settled on its horns to become recognisable as the letter ‘A’ we use today.

(7) In the novel ‘The interiors’ by William Golding, the Neanderthals always say ‘I had a picture’ instead of ‘I’ve just thought of something’. The anthropologists agree that for once the novelist had it just about right. The term ‘show me’ or ‘I see what you mean’ indicates a connection between sight and subject which is very real. (ii) In ancient cultures the Shaman or Holy Man would engage in vision quests, though many of these cultures may no longer exist some of the terminology remains. The highest compliment we pay to someone with ‘foresight’ is to describe them as visionary or seer. Nikola Tesla, inventor of the electric motor, designed in his head and was able to instruct his mechanics with such accuracy that when all the components were assembled they fitted perfectly. Mozart was able to compose fully orchestrated scores in his imagination before writing each note down – without making any mistakes. Today, elite athletes will pre-visualise themselves winning their event as mental preparation for the real thing. But being able to visualise isn’t exclusive to the gifted few, it’s a mental process we all share to some extent. The French writer, Joseph Joubert, said, ‘Writing is closer to thinking than speaking.’ There is a lot of truth in this. Unless we visualise something we are unable to think about it. When reading a novel we actively imagine characters, places and situations, often in far more detail than their literary descriptions. Tolstoy never actually describes Anna Karenina other than to say she is beautiful, leaving the reader to create their own vision of the character. If we were unable to do this, our enjoyment and understanding of the narrative would be severely diminished.

(8) ‘Our thoughts and dreams possess no typographic system. We dream in pictures’ Gunter Rambow, (1938 -) German Graphic Designer.

(9) The human brain has two hemispheres, each responsible for different functions: the right is concerned with emotion, feeling, imagination, creativity, philosophy, the ‘bigger picture’, spatial awareness, impulsiveness, impetuosity and fantasy; the left with logic, facts, details, strategies, rules, order, practicality and reality. There is a complex cross over system between the two halves but the balance of power between them is rarely equal. The degree to which we use and rely on the functions from either the left or right governs our actions and responses – it determines who we are and our point a view. Machael Gazzaniga, a renowned American mathematician, commenting on the human brain once said, ‘You wouldn’t want to have a date with a right hemisphere.’ But you might expect an academic to say this. In contrast, the imaginative mind of Gene Roddenberry, creator of the cult TV series Star Trek, characterised the science officer ‘Spok’, as a personification of left brain functions … and an alien species. Enough said.

(Article by Patrick Jackson, Patrick Jackson Design).

Source: (i) Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen, Reading Images. Routledge (London 1996). (ii) Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon (London 2001). Reasourses: Richard Dimbleby and Graeme Burton, More Than Words – Third Edition. Routledge (London 2000). James Hutchinson, Letters. The Herbert Press (London 1983). Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen, Reading Images.Routledge (London 1996). Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon (London 2001). David Crow, Visible Signs.