A metaphorical view on visual alphabets
This is my contribution to a recent discussion between Christina Wodtke and Dave Gray about different visual alphabets, their usefulness and the shapes they (should) contain. It started with Christina’s article questioning the usefulness of visual alphabets, followed by Dave’s rebuttal and a loose Twitter thread going on from there.
I’ve spent a couple of breakfast sessions musing about the similarities and differences of visual and verbal language (we are borrowing the term ‘alphabet’ after all), which was interesting but not conclusive (yet).
A metaphor to the rescue
I’ve also been trying to find other analogies that would help to explore the problem on a more basic, conceptual level.
As metaphors are one of my favourite ways to think through a topic and to explain my view, let me take you on my little thought journey, starting with one of my favourite quotes on sketching by Paul Klee:
“A line is a dot going for a walk.”
When we sketch, we are sending a dot for a walk. There are 4 different moves a dot can perform on its walk.
1. walk straight – making a continuous straight line.
2. gradually change direction – making a curve.
The curvature can range from gentle to very steep.
3. abruptly change direction – making a corner.
The angle of the corner can be anything from quite acute to very obtuse. The abrupt change of direction can happen between straight lines, between curves or between a mixture of the two.
4. jump – leaving the paper in one point and landing again in a different place.
These jumps can be little hops —just leaving small gaps between marks – or giant leaps across the whole page. The dot can also hover mid-air for a while (matrix-style), taking its time to get an overview over the situation from its birds-eye perspective and contemplate its next move.
This last move is different from the first 3 as it isn’t a mark-making move. It is the pausing, non-mark-making in-between. It’s an opportunity to observe, to (re-)consider and to change course if necessary.
With these four options, we can create any basic or complex shape. We can sketch a simple square, a complex diagram, a detailed gothic cathedral or a sweeping landscape. Any shape or object can be described as a choreography of these four simple moves.
Learning to sketch is like learning to dance
It is learning to chain together a series of simple movements in the right order and in the right place to create a meaningful arrangement.
When we first learn how to dance, we learn some basic dance moves, small prepared mini choreographies that we can copy, repeat and string together to perform a little dance.
Over time, we learn to move our body more freely, we are less dependent on the specific moves and sequences we learnt. We start to improvise, to feel the movement and to express who we are on the dance floor. We develop our own style.
An alphabet of moves
To me, a visual alphabet is a starter set of simple dance moves I can teach to a student, so they have a basic repertoire they can use to start making the first steps on the floor. They can practice them to learn the basic techniques and they can put them together in different combinations to create their own dances.
I also teach people complete dance routines, for example, how to sketch a lightbulb, a bicycle or a handshake. At first, they can just copy, feeling good to get through a song with a decent routine.
But if they are interested, they will also learn the logic of how a whole routine comes together through the individual parts, how routines are variations on a theme, a regrouping of different elements, a composition that fits the music and expresses a feeling or a story. Over time, they will start to create their own moves, choreograph their own routines and sometimes even do some amazing freestyle.
Depending on who you study with, the starter set of moves they teach might look a little different. But at the end of day, the goal of the process is the same for all of us: we want to start grooving, to feel the beat and to just go out and own the dance floor.
I found it very helpful to use the metaphor of physical movement and body language to explore the dynamics of visual language. There are much more interesting thoughts in there, especially moving beyond form into the field of meaning. This is going to be another article.
For now, here is the metaphor glossary I built while putting together this article. This is only a start. Add your own terms to the glossary in the comments. It’s so much fun to draw out these analogies :)
If sketching = dancing, then…
- Physical expression = visual expression
- Movement = mark on paper
- Specific dance move (e.g. A basic two-step, the shuffle or Travolta’s famous ‘point’) = basic shape in a visual alphabet (e.g. Square, circle, spiral). Depending on the style of dance you are learning or the teacher you are studying with, the basic dance moves can be simpler or more complex.
- Dance routine = a whole piece consisting of different dance moves arranged in a certain order (e.g. the YMCA dance or the Macarena) = a sketch of a whole object or person made up of different basic shapes.
- A whole ballet / dance piece = a complete sketch or diagram explaining a concept or telling a story
- Expressing yourself through dance = expressing your thoughts and ideas through sketching
- Your individual dance style = your individual sketching style. If we all do the same dance routine, each of us will do it slightly differently, because our bodies, the way we move and our personalities are different. The same is true for sketching.
- Muscle memory = the way we learn a dance routine is by repeating it over and over again, until we don’t have to think about it anymore, but we internalised the movement and ‘stored’ them in our muscles. The same is true for sketching.
- Moving with confidence = sketching with a confident line. When dancers move, even when they just casually move in daily life, they have a certain confidence, strength and grace in their moves, because they put awareness into moving for 100s of hours during training. When someone can draw, their lines have confidence. Even is they just sketch a quick couple of lines on a napkin, you can see that they know what they are doing and that their lines have developed through awareness and many hours of practice.
- Freestyling / improvising = we can start to dance freestyle without a routine when we understood the basic principles and types of moves of the dance. We feel the music and the rhythm, we moved beyond the mere technical understanding and reached the skill and confidence to start playing around with what we learned = We can pick up a pen and sketch a scene in front of our eyes or an idea from our mind even if we haven’t sketched the same thing or elements before. We are responding to what we see by applying the skills and principles we acquired through practice to create new expressions.
- Music = something we see or a thought in our head = the stimulus we react to and interpret through our expression.
- Shoes = pens = if you dance a lot, you want to get the right shoes. But the shoes don’t make you a great dancer. You can rock a dance floor in flip flops, heavy boots or old trainers. If you can, wear something comfortable though. You don’t want to think about your shoes while you're dancing ;)
To be continued… Feel free to add your own glossary entries in the comments.
Eva-Lotta Lamm is a designer, visual thinker and sketchnoter.
She is currently writing a book on Sketching Interfaces.
Check out her conference sketchnotes, retrace her 2014/2015 14-month world trip through her daily travel sketchnotes, attend one of her talks or workshops, read some more of her thoughts and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.