|InfoVis.net>Magazine>message nº 120||Published 2003-05-05|
|También disponible en Español|
The digital magazine of InfoVis.net
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.
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
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.
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