Alphabets and Ideographs
When I first got into Visual Thinking, I came across a core concept that no one agreed on: visual alphabets.
Here is the one put together by Austin Kleon, Dave Gray and Sunni Brown at a SXSW one year. I like to imagine it was drawn in a bar on a cocktail napkin. (It wasn’t! It was pondered by Dave Gray at Xplane for many a year, then vetted by his co-thinkers Sunni and Austin.)
And Mike Rohde’s Five Elements, from The Sketchnote Handbook
And from the master, Ed Emberley in Make a World: “If you can draw these shapes, you can make a world.”
I kept wondering, why are they all different? If it’s an alphabet, something basic to all doodles, why isn’t it standard? Like the roman alphabet: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ?
But then I came across this gem, in David Sibbet’s Visual Meetings…
Why is it a gem? It’s just more shapes, just like everyone else’s, right?
The gem is that’s just part one. He goes on to draw this:
I realized the visual alphabet marks varied because they were a variety of ways to create what did carry meaning: pictographs and ideographs. A visual language doesn’t necessarily need an alphabet, but it does need a vocabulary.
And then I knew what to do.
It’s Just Semantics, You Say?
Alphabets, ideographs, tomaito, tomahto… isn’t this all a bunch of semantics? Let me explain why this is important by telling you about the Mayans. They invented writing in 600 BC (maybe much earlier), but when the Spanish invaded in the 1500's, their civilizations had already collapsed, and they were living in small villages.
The villagers had held on to a treasure: dozens of books written on fig bark that held their history and culture. Spanish priest Diego De Landa burned these to encourage the Mayans to convert, and managed to stamp out their ability to read their own language. Or anyone else’s.
Fast forward a few hundred years and archaeologists are finding all these crazy ruined cities in the jungle, filled with giant pyramids and tablets covered with writing. Obviously they wanted to read what was written, but nobody could decipher it. There is a terrific documentary on it, Cracking the Mayan Code, and a fabulous comic on The Nib and you totally should check out both.
But what matters for our interests is that no one could decipher the writing because it was a weird size- it had more characters than it should have. Most writing systems are alphabets, syllabaries or logographies. Alphabets are small, because a symbol is a phoneme (sound.) Syllabaries are slightly larger — imagine if c, h and ch were all separate symbols. And logographies are the biggest because there is a separate symbol for every word, both ideographs and pictographs.
But Mayan had vast amounts of characters, sometimes drawn stand-alone and sometimes combined into new characters, and their writing didn’t match what anyone knew about any writing system.
The Mayan writing system was slowly deciphered bit by bit by a string of people, including a Russian linguist, an art historian, and a child of archaeologists who grew up in the ruins surrounded by Mayans who taught him the spoken language. He published his first paper at 12. That’s not relevant to my figuring out what visual thinking really is made of, but it’s pretty cool. Tell your kids to stop playing video games and climb a pyramid occasionally, dammit.
Anyhow, here is what David Stuart figured out (images blatantly borrowed from Andy Warner’s comic, GO READ IT!)
Again, all these awesome images from Andy Warner’s comic, GO READ IT!
Want to be an awesome visual thinker: Be Mayan!
Artistic license is the secret! You have to make your own language! It’s not about shapes! That’s like saying you can learn to write English by drawing lines and circles! (Ok, drawing lines and circles helps you write neatly.)
If you want to do Visual Thinking — from sketchnotes to graphic facilitation to whiteboarding with teams — you need to build a visual vocabulary of how you, the person with the pen, will express your pictographs and ideographs.
Your job is to determine how you render core ideas like “user” “idea” “database” “struggle” and any other things you need to draw.
There is no visual alphabet, but there is a visual vocabulary.
(0r — nerd alert! — a logography)
You can invent it or you can steal it, but you need that vocabulary if you want to say anything with pictures.
Shapes help you build the vocabulary, like practicing circles helps you make a good looking Q, but they are so NOT ENOUGH.
What You NEED to do is build a vocabulary of the things you need to say. Drawing shapes is good for manual dexterity (like learning to make the french “rrrrr” sound) BUT if you want to be articulate, you have to build a vocabulary. By drawing LOTS of stuff.
Rohde has these nifty worksheets in his Sketchnote Handbook, and you should probably make some for your field.
Let’s invent a writing system! Who’s with me?
To begin, I had to figure out how I write the pictograph “person.”
I.e. when I get up in front of a whiteboard, what do I draw? What’s comfortable and looks good? What’s fast, and I don’t have to think about?
After all, as a human centered designer I should be able to draw a human.
There are a lot of ways to draw people far away. These are useful for drawing crowds.
For faces, one can consider Hugh Dubberly or Bill Verplank draws them….
As in this famous diagram
For me, I ended up with this:
Which I use a lot, including when drawing an empathy map or my modified Value proposition canvas on a whiteboard.
And what about the most common use, medium distance? Brunetti or Gray?
So many possibilities!
I found exploring my own personal visual language was a lot like being a cartoonist, and finding my style. I copied a lot of people
and when I found a style I liked (like Don Hertzfelt), I played with it until it became mine.
I messed with proportions
Played wiht body shapes and styles
and slowly built out my vocabulary to express ideas.
Eventually I realized that it’s fun to have a style for expressing complex ideas
or even just joking around…
But for working, like whiteboarding apps and ideas, simpler was better. I wanted speed and the ability to concentrate on the problem I was solving. Thus I needed to make sure that drawing the imagery was as unconscious as writing the words
I had traveled around the drawing world and came back to Ed Emberley. His simple drawings made of simple shapes (Oh! Shapes….) is the easiest way to say anything.
Drawing simply like a kid is quite ok. I have a BIG vocabulary now. If need to say something, whether it’s on an index card, a whiteboard or in my sketchbook I have a way. If I want to make a joke, create a concept model, or a quick flow chart with an actual user in it, I can do it. I can express my ideas so I can see them, evaluate them and communicate them. I can talk to others, or just talk to myself.
Anywhere, anytime, I’m ready. I’m Wodtke literate.
Go make your language!