Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Visual Language

As I've focused on in several posts already, the importance that communication plays on everything we do cannot be understated. Specifically for designers, the graphic representation of abstract, and personified qualities associated with causes, corporations, business entities, and mission statements is becoming more of an art in story telling than just being able to come up with a creative idea and draw it.

During the 50's and 60's when advertising agencies and marketing started to burst through the seams of emerging technologies, the messages were often tailored to a very specific demographics, portraying very narrow minded applications, and told one specific story. This story became so much more complex with the introduction of television, as well as larger circulations in printed magazines and newspapers. More and more reliance on the graphics being portrayed gave way to heavy gaps in the communication through these designs. It became the communication of complex emotions and messages through visuals alone. A visual language.



This particular language has hundreds of different facets to pull information from that reveals subtle hints as to what life was like at that time. If you look at the Pepsi ad above from the 1950's, you can make the obvious notes that their message is in no way subtle or hidden. The use of text is heavier to actually present the audience with the intended message blatantly outlining the emotions that advertisers want readers to feel when partaking in their products.

As the audience changed to focus on a younger audience in a fast-paced social world, the campaigns began to reflect the fact that people were reading less, and skimming more. This changed the ads to have heavy story telling solely through images and graphics.


People were being bombarded with slogans, ads, gimmicks, and special offers in so many varying mediums that ads themselves had to change to gain the upper-hand against competitors. In essence, they had to say more with the least amount of words possible.

Being able to communicate through visuals can have a number of drawbacks, and should be approached carefully. The core of a visual language is generally based around a single understood culture through which these subtle cues and norms are portrayed for an audience to recognize, interpret, and find relevant to their daily life; or better yet, who they feel they are.

Major communication errors can occur when translating certain messages for other languages and cultures that have great variances. For instance, most Western cultures and written languages read from left to right, while some Eastern cultures, read right to left. In an instance where an ad were laid out with images portraying a before and after image of how a laundry detergent gets laundry white and clean, the inherent way it is read, now translates that message as, "This detergent turns your clean clothes dirty!"

As written and spoken language changes through generations, the effort to communicate with our visual language also changes. These changes depend on a variety of things; the following being a few examples:

  • current events and global economy (ie: global vs. domestic product distribution)
  • scientific and technological advances in media (ie: faster technological tools for production)
  • social norms and taboos in mainstream media (ie: inclusion or exclusion of certain minorities or lifestyles)
  • changes in methods of information exchange (ie: new innovative technology)
In branding specifically, you can sometimes see when a certain brand was established by looking for certain cues and graphic elements that hint towards blatant identifiers of an era, a popular style, a certain color scheme, or a general look and feel of something that didn't age well across generations. 

Particularly for Lucile Ball, during the Cold War, the hysteria surrounding the Red Scare through Hollywood forced upon her a nasty association with communism stemming from her red hair. This paranoia eventually had a devistating  impact on her life, marriage, and television career. The irony of this, is that the show wasn't even aired in color, and all red was just grey.

Design, and any method of taking a message and creating a universal translation of its meaning through image, requires a deep understanding of the audience, creativity, ingenuity, and the patience to do your research for all markets and possible "dialects" of visual language. It's as dynamic as we are, and adapt accordingly.

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