Learning to See Iconography

Pedestrian Crossing

Today it was really hot in my neighborhood — something like 95 degrees Fahrenheit. I was walking through the neighborhood looking for signs. I was on assignment for my DesignLab class, to identify and document the iconography of my everyday pedestrian life. What I found was pretty pedestrian (as you’d expect!), but I enjoyed thinking about iconography and the role that it plays in our lives.

Speaking Without Words

Iconography uses context, color and culture to communicate beyond written language. Iconography is a uniquely human form of communication, relying on things like metaphors, context clues, and learned abstractions. It’s an all-purpose tool: it give us information quickly, tells us what to avoid to be safe, it reinforces our sense of group identity, and so many other things. Any time you see an image and you know what it means or what you’re supposed to do, there’s iconography at work.

Some symbols we’ve come to rely on

I’m a fluent reader in English and I’ve never left this country for an extended period of time. Today I had fun imagining what it would be like to not be able to read English at all, and to only rely on iconography to get along. One of the first things I noticed is that I would have been out of luck if I wanted to go to a restaurant or to the local pharmacy. The iconography I encountered was pretty much solely geared to safety and being a law-abiding citizen: e.g., symbols for ‘don’t cross the street here’, ‘recycle here’, ‘don’t smoke here’.

The most prominent icons I found were safety-oriented (for good reason!)

It’s interesting how much iconography is actually intended for automobile drivers and not pedestrians, though it makes total sense. When you’re going fast within a huge, dangerous hunk of metal, you need very clear and obvious clues about what’s dangerous.

But, I thought, why is public iconography way more prohibitive than it is encouraging? The iconography of the digital realm is much more encouraging and playful, but I found the signage of this public space to be dull and, well, vaguely totalitarian — “Don’t do this! Don’t do that!”. This is a shame, and something I’ve seen addressed in fields like public health (e.g. using iconography to show someone enjoying taking a walk), but only on a municipal scale.

A parting thought: what would the experience of your neighborhood be like if there was as much iconography encouraging you to try new things as there is iconography telling you what not to do? Probably more fun, right?