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.