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Comments (11) Posted 03.18.05 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Tom Vanderbilt

A Pictograph Is Worth a Thousand Words?




I braved the midway point of one of Seoul's ever-snarled streets yesterday to take this photo, whose scene I found compelling for the strange concentration of varying visual information. Seoul is in intensely graphic city, its commercial streets teeming with stacks of multi-layered signage in both hangul and English, and so almost anywhere one can find dense assemblages of visual information.

The scene I chose, outside "The Galleria" in Apgujeong-dong, has a number of graphic things going on. There's the pearlescent exterior of the building itself, whose discs are actually pixels of sorts for a massive LED display (capable, at night, of some 16 million colors); there's the looming banner advert of Uma, casting her seductive gaze upon the city (if this banner were an hour or so to the North, it would be an illustration bearing the benevolent mien of the Dear Leader); there's the Louis Vuitton logo, an intensely common site in wealthy districts in Asia; there's the numbering on the side of the residential towers, which one sees all over the city (and I secretly suspect are intended to keep residents from mistaking their identical tower block from the next one); there's the signage, in Korean hangul, which I cannot decipher but is a compelling object of graphic design itself, a pictographic alphabet that essentially looks like what it means (and even has graphic representations of how the mouth is supposed to move to pronounce it) and, according to linguist Stephen Wright, is rather unusual because unlike most alphabets, it has not evolved since its creation in 1443 by King Sejong the Great — it was designed at once, as an enduring system, filled with philosophical and pictographic concepts.

And then, at the center of the frame, there's the little green pedestrian man on the "Walk" sign, and this is what had interested me the most. For I had read, in that morning's Financial Times, a short item mentioning that a Left party minister in Sweden was wondering why the figures on pedestrian crossing signs and the like were always men. This in turn had been prompted by a protest by Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik over IKEA's lack of representation of women (or symbols thereof) in its wordless instruction booklets.

As I later wandered the streets of Seoul, noting any number of (male) symbols, it got me to thinking about the staggering ubiquity of — and inevitable limits of — pictographic communication, and what it suggests about globalization (and its discontents).

When one thinks about it, the success of Otto Neurath's ISOTYPE (for International System of Typographic Picture Education) system, introduced in 1936 as a means of conveying information visually, has been astonishing — a little-heralded revolution launched by a rather obscure Viennese Marxist philosopher. And there was more than a bit of Marxist Utopianism to it; as Neurath wrote, "The visual method, fully developed, becomes the basis for a common cultural life and a common cultural relationship." And indeed, moving through the world's airports and cities nowadays is to some extent to traffic in a common cultural life, visually, navigating via these mute symbols, always knowing where the emergency exit might be, or which bathroom to use, whether one is in Rotterdam or Rangoon. Neurath may not have helped change the means of production, but he sure helped changed the means of communication.

No one knows this better than IKEA, for pictographs are an essential component of its merchandising strategy, the vehicle that allows its furniture to be shipped to any market in the world, assembled by anyone speaking any language, indeed obviating the need for literacy at all. Just as everything IKEA makes must conform to the spatial requirements of shipping limitations, so the company can send its goods around the world at lowest possible costs, its instructional manuals are intended to travel equally as effectively, superceding any locality. It is not a Swedish man assembling that desk, it is Everyman (or, less often, Everywoman). And yet the case of IKEA also shows that the "common cultural life" envisioned by Neurath's system perhaps remains an elusive goal. For part of the symbolic gender inequality of IKEA's instruction manuals that piqued the Norwegian prime minister, it seems, stems from a desire not to offend Muslim cultures: As an IKEA spokesperson put it, "In Muslim countries it's problematic to use women in instruction manuals," she added. Indeed, depicting woman-symbols assembling birch-veneer tables and bookshelves might merely be the first step on a slippery descent into all kinds of dangerous social tinkering.

The idea that our versions of Neurath's isotypes are largely men is intriguing, perhaps troubling, the sort of visual equivalent of resorting to "he" or "man" when speaking in the abstract about an individual. But does it really prop up some regime of gender inequality to show only a male figure crossing a street? And if one is to depict women in this empire of symbols, how does one do that without resorting to potentially stereotypical or sexist representations of the female form, or dress? (Thankfully, isotypes do not depict racial or ethnic characteristics, so we don't have to get into thorny questions of representation). The common female pictogram usually appears on women's restrooms, and the figure typically has the outline of a skirt. But even bathrooms are conflicted terrain these days, with activists at Harvard and elsewhere arguing that this dichotomy, backed up by its visual apparatus, is an outmoded system of traditional gender concepts.

There is another massive, intractable problem with IKEA's pictograms: They are a functional nightmare. Several weeks ago, I purchased a metal storage unit from the store, and commenced to assemble it. At no less than three times in the process, I was forced to undo what I had done, going back several stages to add some screw I had neglected or reconfigure some cross-brace I had attached in the wrong order. When I had finally assembled the cabinet, there was the requisite leftover IKEA hardware, which I assumed, since they had bothered to include it, must somehow be essential to the construction of my furniture, and yet there sat the cabinet, seemingly workable even without Nut A and flange B — even now it still crosses my mind that the whole thing might simply collapse in the night.

Neurath posited that isotypes would be an alternative to written script, "adapted to the child's mind." Perhaps it takes a child's mind to assemble IKEA furniture. My lasting impression is despite the wonderful universality of the graphic regimen, and the way it makes it possible for IKEA to function so effectively in a global market, at some point it is never enough — sometimes words make all the difference. It would have been far more advantageous to my furniture assembly if there had been, at a few crucial moments, some explanatory text, in English; but then IKEA must pay to have that phrase translated into umpteen different languages, having to print separate instruction manuals, or filling the pages with a polyglot Babel.

And while the heirs of Neurath's system make it easy for us to navigate the modern world, allowing me to safely cross the street in a Seoul landscape that at times can be visually confusing, this graphic system only covers the most basic requirements toward operating in a city or culture that is not your own. At some point, it will break down. You will encounter a sign you do not understand. The map will confuse you. You will use your dining utensil in a way not considered polite. There will be a "mirror world" moment, as William Gibson described it, where you will try to operate a phone or other device that looks familiar, but is somehow slightly off. Those anonymous IKEA figures, men and women alike, will assume features, and language. The symbolic must become real.
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Comments (11)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

Talking about gender stereotyping, Lupton & Miller observed that "the only place a woman appears in the DOT symbol signs besides the lavatory doors is in the sign for ticket sales. Here, where one person is offering a service to another, the designers deemed it appropriate to show a woman assisting a man."
Emir
03.18.05 at 11:46

Hangul is most definitely not pictographic. It looks as though it is because of how it is written but it is entirely syllabic. (But of course the Koreans do use Chinese characters too)
xman
03.19.05 at 03:56

A very interesting essay touching on some huge subjects. I'd like to pick up a seemingly unimportant aside:

if this banner were an hour or so to the North, it would be an illustration bearing the benevolent mien of the Dear Leader

That's true, but it's also worth pointing out that in North Korea it would be an illustration showing an Asian ethnic and not a Western ethnic. That in itself is an interesting way into the troubled question of "globalization and its discontents". In the "New World Order" of the global economy, a kind of benign imperialism reigns by a system of representation. I use the word "representation" in both the political sense and the graphic design sense. Universal systems cannot depict everyone; if they did, they would map to the real world at 1:1 scale. So they streamline, simplify, represent.

Representation demands conventions, ellipses, omissions. The signifier both represents and betrays the signified. Now, it's possible to argue that "man" does not mean man the gender, but man as mankind. Women are "represented" by the word, and the symbol, man, in this argument, despite being invisible, just as Asians are represented in a Louis Vuitton photo, despite being invisible.

My lasting impression is despite the wonderful universality of the graphic regimen, and the way it makes it possible for IKEA to function so effectively in a global market, at some point it is never enough — sometimes words make all the difference.

My feeling is that it's representation itself (whether by words or symbols) which is never enough. And our consent to be represented by someone else -- a politician, an actress, a sign -- must always be provisional... and should always be accompanied by uneasiness and suspicion.
Nick Currie
03.19.05 at 05:07

Although I´m totally in favour of equal rights for men and womes, I think this issue gets a bit exgerated sometimes...
"the figures on pedestrian crossing signs and the like were always men"
What makes one think they are always men? Because they´re not wearing skirts? Because they have short hair? Nowadays most women wear trousers, many of them have short hair and there are plenty of men with long hair...
Anyway, my point is: I believe these pictugrams represent a human being rather than a man, a simplification of both genders... That´s what I think, anyway...
Bruna
03.19.05 at 01:03

Just out of curiousity ...
What were you doing in Seoul? I work 5 minutes away from were you took the picture and am curious as to why you would be (t)here.
fritz
03.20.05 at 04:12

Thankfully, isotypes do not depict racial or ethnic characteristics, so we don't have to get into thorny questions of representation

Perhaps not in "our versions of Neurath's isotypes" but Neurath's versions of Neurath's isotypes included a range of racial and social stereotypes, pointing out a secondary irony of isotyping: A little man can be the nongendered, universal "he" until nurses are depicted as women or Negroes are shown; then, as usual, we lose control of our synecdoches as they expand and contract in a manner that is beyond our wills as designers and communicators.

The primary irony is that as our work becomes more refined and more universal it becomes more like Esperanto—equally unintelligible to everyone of all cultures.

(My version of the AIGA/DOT symbols get into thorny issues of representation, BTW.)
Gunnar Swanson
03.20.05 at 05:04

Very good writing Tom.

"Thankfully, isotypes do not depict racial or ethnic characteristics, so we don't have to get into thorny questions of representation"

It is true that the original isotypes did not depict racial or ethic charasteristics but I wrote an essay (Unfortunately in Icelandic only) on this subject of Neurath's system and found an Indian version of pictographs depicting a man and a woman wearing traditional Indian clothes. As you can see the woman is not wearing the typical western dress as often used to symbol a female.Here the woman is depicted in traditional Sari and the man is wearing traditional Indian male clothes.

Picture:
Indian Pictograph

So for me this brings up the question weather isotype can be universal in a cultural (and maybe a fashion) kind of sense. Are the isotypes really simple enough to be understood everywhere and by everyone?
Ragnar Freyr
03.20.05 at 08:33

1) A friend of mine who has visited the Armistice Center in the DMZ between North and South Korea could not help but notice that the North Korean soldiers were not only 6' tall, but that they were wearing rouge. Why? To project that air of health in the North Korean propaganda posters. She said it was pretty creepy, especially when they nearly got stuck up there for the night because of downdrafts.

I am sure that someone can get into some sort of signifier and signified, art and life sort of thing.

2) Of course there is no such thing as a universally interpretable pictogram. People have to learn how to understand these things. Of course, it helps if they are stylized and they have some sort of image grammar so that they are easier to learn, memorize and guess.

Kaleberg
03.20.05 at 11:56

I think Gunnar Swanson's primary and secondary ironies of isotyping are very astute:

A little man can be the nongendered, universal "he" until nurses are depicted as women or Negroes are shown

and

as our work becomes more refined and more universal it becomes more like Esperanto—equally unintelligible to everyone of all cultures.

There was a film on French-German TV network Arte last night which touched on this. Un Baiser Pour L'eternite (by Leon Giesen et Marcel Prins) looked at the symbols and recordings sent into space with Voyager 2, and interviewed the team of NASA advisors who'd come up with them. The more they explained their rationale, the more absurd the whole idea of communicating with an unknown partner became, and the more it resembled an exercise in narcissistic self-mediation on a planetary scale.
Nick Currie
03.21.05 at 06:08

So for me this brings up the question weather isotype can be universal in a cultural (and maybe a fashion) kind of sense. Are the isotypes really simple enough to be understood everywhere and by everyone?

I wish I could remember where I saw this, but one of the most tongue-in-cheek male/female restroom symbol signs completely omitted the male/female isotypes. Instead, they were two nearly identical pictographs of a toilet seat — except the male toilet seat was up.

A random thought: I wonder if using a purely pictographic language as Neurath suggested would predispose a generation to be visual thinkers or create some interesting linguistic effects á la Sapir-Worf.
Sonyl
03.21.05 at 02:07

concerning the "men pictographs"

sufficiently abstracted to avoid the illustration of clothing, and rendered without sexual anatomy for reasons of modesty and plurality in meaning; you are simply left with the basic form of "man." this icon to me is genderless and describes the base form of human.

often the argument that this figure is somehow excluding the feminine, must only be based on the lack of it explicitly rendering the superficial (hair, clothing, anatomicaly sublties.) these are unnecessary stylizations for the scale and communicative task at hand.
ivan cook
03.25.05 at 11:25


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Vanderbilt writers about architecture, design, technology, science and other topics for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, Wired, The Financial Times, Smithsonian, Slate and Metropolis..
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