01 February 2012

...sign language

Awaiting my number 12 bus to arrive on a cold January morning my attention was caught by a poster advertising cereal. Not because cereal is a delicious meal any time of the day and a good source of vitamins and minerals, no, but because I saw an ubiquitous pictogram of the iPhone we've all become rather familiar with; the logo which depicts 'Available on the App Store'. I was admiring its simplicity, how such an uncomplicated shape - a rectangle within another bevelled rectangle with just one line and one circle either end - can signify such complexities beneath the graphic. I also wondered what I'd have for breakfast when I got to work.

Along came the bus. I got on.

My bus journeys are currently being expedited by Deyan Sudjic's The Language of Things, a remarkably digestible read on the objects around us, the design behind them and together, what it all means. Unless Deyan suddenly turns it into an erotic crime thriller, I'd recommend it to anyone, including nanas - with a revealing eye and easy turn of phrase it reflects upon not just design but social issues which I imagine very few avoid brushing against in this flipping complicated world which we live. Discussed are some everyday objects around us and how their carefully considered shapes, forms and functions have made them the archetypes we're familiar with - even when in their most modern form they bear little visual relation to their predecessor. Take for example the first Bakelite telephone, designed by Jean Heiberg, with its silver dial and distinct ergonomic handset. Although pretty much out of popular use today, the pictogram to which it's associated is still an internationally recognisable symbol for telephone (for how long is arguable, given a generation of kids will never likely use or let alone see the Bakelite telephone for a reference point). However, although stuff gets superseded, when the item in question creates a culturally significant mark it does so in a collective conscience. This 'old fashioned' phone is hard to forget even after being upgraded and turned to scrap. Sure, there were other telephones before this particular model, but Heiberg's design hit the mark which elevated it to live on as a popular visual metaphor for telephonic communication.

Another example is the Deiter Rams calculator. Designed to be the most perfect form of this particular mathematical instrument it was purposely shorn of ornament and crafted to ascend such transient things as fashion. Rams' goal to ultimately remove any need for another calculator. As a result, this timeless object inadvertently formed an archetypal idea of what a calculator should be. So much so that Apple's own iPhone calculator bears an uncanny resemblance by using Rams' original calculator as inspiration for their skeuomorphic user interface. It's a neat little nod by Apple towards Rams' original mould-breaking one-calculator-to-rule-them-all rationale, picking up the baton to set a new category of device in the form of the iPhone; one-device-to-rule-them-all. But what becomes of archetypes such as the telephone and calculator now that many familiar, singular objects are being rolled into one clever little smartphone? This brings me back to the iPhone icon on the bus stop poster.

In the past, objects and artefacts pretty much did the same thing no matter who owned them. A telephone sat in the corner and rang until it was answered. An alarm clock told you the time and woke you up, a Walkman played cassettes placed into them as you went about your business. However, with the merging of these devices into one clever ergonomic handset you can lose in the bottom of your tote bag, our understanding of them should, in theory, be terribly muddied as we try to unravel precisely what it is that we hold in our hand. Between brands, smartphones differ wildly. Even off-the-shelf identical devices can each be tailored to the whims of their owner with countless apps changing their function at the drop of 79p for whatever the user desires; gaming, email, organising, social media to name just four. But despite the complexities of the technology within and the myriad functions performed, we DO understand exactly what this complicated little artefact is and at a snap know what it means to view the symbol for iPhone, whether on a website, in a magazine or on a bus stop poster. It means all these things and just one all at the same time. It's a mental extrapolation we don't even have to think about as our gradual understanding of smartphones has evolved whilst we've grown with them in a technological blink of an eye.

So archetypes remain. As part of a visual vocabulary, they are the building blocks of how we understand symbols, which in turn exist to represent something in the simplest form, to communicate meaning. On their own terms, symbols can be understood because of the leg work put in by archetypes, but they can also be subverted, and it's a powerful tool the designer has at his or her disposal. Indulge me in a ridiculous macho simile if you will, but if symbols are bullets, context is a gun. Take a pictogram of a burger. As a sign it may literally just be saying 'burger'. But with it is carried cultural baggage that forms part of a semiotic DNA whereupon many signifiers can alter what's implied; fast food, beef, cow, hunger, greed, capitalism, economics, globalisation, USA, McDonalds, good, bad, obesity, abundance, value, cost. There's all this beneath a simple graphic and when used smartly the context in which the burger is viewed can truly skew the meaning. Stick it on a picture of a depleted rainforest and you make a political statement. Hackneyed maybe but a political statement nonetheless.

Even symbols created solely with one specific purpose rely on context. Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert's 1964 Men at Work warning sign has a primary function of alerting road users and pedestrians to oncoming roadworks by using a symbol of a man digging, set inside a red triangle. Learnt as part of the Highway Code, anyone driving in the UK will have this sign drilled into them for their driving test; we unequivocally know what it means. But what if we're handed a club flyer in the street and we see this particular sign used as part of the design - does it mean the road ahead's being dug up? Unless that's a hipster euphemism for a 'banging' DJ set, almost entirely unlikely. No matter where a symbol is seen, context is always a proviso of interpretation for a true understanding of what's before our eyes.

What on earth am I trying to say? I'm not sure. I've been writing this on and off for God only knows how long, tangled myself in many iterations of many strands of thought on the subject of signs, their symbols, the archetypes from which they are born, and the power they behold in both the right and wrong hands, but still I'm having trouble wrapping this all up. So let's try.
The generic smartphone has become part of the fabric of modern life, but it's Apple's aesthetically pleasing user-friendly iPhone which has forged a new archetype and symbolic benchmark into which all other same-category devices fall, further informing our semiotic understanding of them. All through design magic. And marketing. And vertically integrated lock-in business models. But that's another conversation altogether.

Semiotics. It's complicated. Yet simple. Yet complicated. And I've done nothing here to help matters. I'm sorry.

In a nutshell. DO read The Language of Things - even the most seasoned designer will enjoy the crystallisation of ideas when Sudjic eloquently shares his. DO also read Roland Barthes Mythologies as a companion piece. DO NOT ever use a pictogram of a burger as a political statement. DO NOT tell anyone I used the bullet and gun metaphor. DO remember to come back and visit, it can get so lonely out here on the internet.

Rainforest pic © Roberto Saccon