Graphic design as visual language

When a new medium arrives it changes the way we communicate visually as well as technically. With the growth of digital magazines, it’s time we rethought our visual language.

How many languages do you speak? Chances are, if you’re a born English speaker, you’re monolingual; when you travel to other parts of the world you rely on finding people with enough English to help you out when you need the loo, a cashpoint, the next boat, a beer, or all of the above.

When I’m asked what languages I speak I sometimes say that I’m fluent in both English and American. Okay, I say that just for cheap (and admittedly weak) comedic effect, but there is a little more to that than most people realise. You’ve probably heard the saying that America and Britain are ‘two countries separated by a common language’; even with Hollywood’s best efforts that’s as true today as ever. (Curiously, this specific quote appears to be an orphan; George Bernard Shaw was credited with it in 1951 but there’s no recorded source. Dylan Thomas and Oscar Wilde both expressed similar sentiments, as did Churchill.) Spend much time across the Atlantic and you’ll find myriad little oddities that trip you and others up, and they’ll be all the more unexpected because the words themselves are totally familiar. Many times it isn’t even specifically what you say but how you say it. The subtleties and the real heart of a language lie as much in the implied meanings that lie beneath as in the dictionary definitions of the words in a sentence. HOW we say something is as important as WHAT we say. The same holds true, in spades, for the visual language of design.

Graphic design is a language that most people can read passably well, albeit unconciously and in the broader sense of ‘read’. The literal words in a typeset page are supported – or undermined – to a tremendous degree by the way those words are set and how other things are arranged around them. If this wasn’t true then layouts wouldn’t be nearly as effective and everything could be set in 12pt Times Roman. However, far fewer people can ‘write’ this language well. Just like other more regular languages, learning some design basics can be done relatively quickly, but really learning how to communicate clearly and effectively in a visual design idiom takes a lot of time and effort. That’s really what design students do during their years at college, whether they realise this or not. Curiously, most people who are fluent in graphic design seem to be poor to middling at spelling regular words, as if they’re focused more on the drawn rather than written language. That’s with the English-speaking design fraternity anyway; I assume it is largely the same for designers in other parts of the world.

If you haven’t spent time trying to create your own graphics and layouts it can be hard to understand the skill that goes into strong, successful design work. It can seem a bit of a mystery — but at the heart of it designers are simply trying to communicate, using an established visual language that we’ve all been using since birth. The term for this is semiotics, the study and use of of signs and symbols as language and as a means of cultural communication. This discipline is concerned with the linguistic grammar, rules and usage of graphics. To be honest, most professional designers don’t usually concern themselves that deeply with this more abstract aspect of what they do; this is more the preserve of academics. But, as designers, whether we make conscious reference to it or not, semiotics is at the heart of the design process and how we up with visual solutions and structures that convey meaning to the products audience.

The dialect of print magazine design is well established. Whether you feel confident in creating your own mag layouts or not, you can flick through almost any paper magazine around today and know how to find your way around, how to read through articles and sections, and so on. We’ve all grown up with magazines, and while this field has been evolving over the years it is really hardly any different from magazines of 60 years ago. Sequentially linear, bound down one edge, made from pulped trees – from type and image to substrate, nothing’s really changed.

Web design is somewhat different. It helped push interaction design into the spotlight, but it is pretty much universally accepted that a web site is not a magazine; it has it’s own furrow to plough. What’s really challenging magazine designers now is the new digital frontier, the birth of digital magazines. I don’t mean the Flash-based things with the page curl effect as the user flicks from one spread to another. Those have their place, and companies such as Ceros are doing impressive stuff with it. But that’s so rooted in the print medium that the core metaphors are holding it back from developing new forms of language. No, by digital magazines, here, I mean the new wave of iPad publications. Wired magazine gained a lot of early publicity with the June iPad edition, but there is a growing number of others too. Prior to the iPad’s launch many designers intended to use Flash to produce their iPad magazines. The plans generally followed the same route; design then export from InDesign, pretty it up and add interactivity in Flash, then export to the final iPad-friendly format. Apple pulled that rug from under everyone, so the production route is still somewhat up in the air. Wired currently takes whole-cloth page layouts rendered as bitmap images and adds interactivity. Hardly the compact elegance promised by HTML5 proponents, but at least it begins with solid, trusted page design tools.

But all that, of course, is more a production issue. The semiotics questions lie in the design aspects. However these things are made, the point is that these new parts of our visual language are still being worked out — and we’ve barely begun. Like the car industry a century ago we’re in the ‘horseless carriage’ stage of development; we’re basing much of our work on the abilities and limits of a technology that it isn’t. How does a reader move around the digital magazine? How does front-middle-back work when there’s no tangible product? Should there be a literal mapping of a set of pages to a more physical representation or not? In other words, when navigating around, if someone drags a full page to the right, then down, then left, then up again, should that take them back to the start or not? It doesn’t have to, but should it anyway? What about page height? Width? Hell with it, what’s a page anyway?

There are many more things to tackle too, we’ve just scratched the surface here. These really are interesting, exciting times; we’re watching the establishment of new sections of our visual language. It is based on what’s come before, of course, but it is not a simple digital rehash. This is a design development that we need to learn and, when the opportunities come up, explore directly and perhaps help refine. Even if you don’t see yourself working on digital magazines, new ideas in one area have a habit of soaking through and affecting other areas as well. As with web design over the last decade, twists and turns in the new medium can influence the way we express things in the existing print-based one.

Granted that graphic design is a form of visual language, this means that any graphic designer is at least bilingual. (And that’s without any cheap American-English joke.) Now that this form of communication is evolving faster than any regular spoken one you should really keep in touch with these developments or you may find yourself using the equivalents of ‘whilst’ and ‘thee’ in your graphic conversations.

As for me, I’m going to have a particularly linguistically-challenging time ahead of me. As well as trying to keep on top of digital design developments I’ll be attempting to learn two new languages this year; Objective-C, and Turkish. Wish me luck, I know I’ll need it! And if you have any tips, particularly on the Turkish front, please let me know. In English.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *