Diversity in Visuals

At the VaIL conference a few weeks ago, one of the frequent conversations revolved around the issue of creating a universal graphic system.

The belief that visuals are universal is not new, and largely stems from the fact that most drawings look like what they represent (“iconicity”). This is also a motivating factor behind so-called “universal writing systems” like Blissymbols, Icon Language.

However, when looking at drawings as reflecting patterns in the mind, then there is actually quite a lot of diversity. Patterned styles like those of Japanese manga compared to stereotypical American superhero comics reflect culturally diverse conventions of different populations. Even more relative are the sand drawings of native Australian communities, and the constraints they place on recognizing other graphic depictions. Several other stories exist of people not fully understanding iconic drawings as well, such as the story Mort Walker tells about natives (I can’t recall where) who thought that a person’s legs were cut off, despite just being “out of frame.”

Given this, perhaps it’s time that we get over the idea of a universal communication system, and we come to accept that populations of humans will always develop idiosyncratic and in-group tendencies.

While globalization especially has raised a desire for inter-cultural communication, diversity in communication systems may have had evolutionary advantages. Having an identity tied to your language separate from others’ means you can identify your group members, and even more helpful that you can keep secrets from other groups. If it wasn’t beneficial, we would all be speaking the same languages (or so the argument could be made… diversity could just be a useful “spandrel” for the way other cognitive functions happened to turn out).

Perhaps instead of attempting to create universal systems, we should instead acknowledge the diversity that comes along with the way our brains are wired for social interactions. By accepting it, we can then strive to work with the constraints that our cognition and diversity brings or allows. That way, it will cease the fighting against the tide of inevitable diversity with rose colored glasses of universality, and instead invites appreciation for relative systems and cooperation to meet common goals of communication.


  • But, what does really count for us? Chinese landscape, japanese writing, Hopi pottery, New-Ireland sculpture? Is any of this taught at many german high schools?
    The music of feudal courts, by a few white men in fewer european countries still is the serious music. In painting less than 20 top people in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands defined art.
    European rule got even easier with modernism: Impressionism had 10 good years, Cubism and Expressionism and Abstract Expresssionism 3 each, Marcel Duchamp needed no time at all to still rule the avant garde.
    And why has a utterly stupid word like globilization the power of a weed?
    The great idea of universal human rights, the silly utopia of a United Nations, useless ideals like esperanto, Chomsky who needs only English to rule language an und für sich, human thinking somehow can`t be cured of universal power phantasies

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