Visual style and visual morphology

While I was on the University of Bremen campus in Germany last month, I stumbled on a very appropriate poster hanging in the linguistics department (right) which sponsors a nice thought experiment about the relationship between conventionalized graphic “morphology” (like motion lines, thought bubbles, or lightbulbs/gears/hearts floating above people’s heads) and the visual “style” they are represented in.

Of course, what caught my eye was that it plays on the “lightbulb above the head” convention, which I call “upfixes.” In my book, I’ve argued that upfixes form a class of “visual morphology” where some sort of object floats above a person’s head to create an even larger meaning. These can be gears for thought, hearts for love, ?! for surprise, lightbulbs for inspiration, and many others.

What caught my eye here is not just that it playfully evokes an upfix by having a person holding a lightbulb, but that the act of holding it doesn’t interfere with the meaning. In fact, the holding of the lightbulb somewhat allows for the fact that it’s a photo to be ok.

For example, we might suspect that having a realistic photo of a person trying to evoke a drawn convention might look weird. And, of course, someone holding a lightbulb does seem a little weird, but not horribly bad. We still get the sense of the “inspiration” meaning out of it.

However, compare this to the poster when we fully get rid of the hand (left)—now resulting in a realistic lightbulb floating above his head. To me at least, this looks a little weirder, even though it’s actually more “accurate” to the upfix!

My suspicion is that we’re more ok with the use of visual morphology in realistic photos when they retain their “realism” using the physics of the “real” world. However, doing the same thing when the morpheme is more similar to its actual graphic equivalent is weirder (i.e., just floating), because it violates the principles of the realism? (I dunno… Maybe it would be better if the lightbulb was lit up?)

I don’t think that it worked all too bad with the upfix cosplay that I stumbled on at WonderCon earlier this year with the exclamation mark, but I’m not quite sure how far we can push this… Clearly, drawn hearts replacing eyes (“eye-umlauts”) are a convention to mean love. I think it’d just look strange to have hearts placed over someone’s eyes in a photo, right? What about holding actual gears above someone’s head?

There seems to be something interesting here about how far one can go with non-iconic elements of visual morphology and their “stylistic” realism. Perhaps this is also why superhero comics don’t use morphology like eye-umlauts or upfixes: they often attempt to maintain some degree of “realism” despite their fantastical powers and those associated conventions (like motion lines, x-ray vision, etc.). This seems like a corpus study and/or an experiment just waiting to happen…


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