How to Design for Global Meaning and Attention

Joe Toscano⚡️
Jan 25, 2016 · 6 min read

The sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Fire is hot. If Donald Trump gets elected President, it will be the first time a reality TV series is based in the White House. These are things we can all agree on.

Essential truths are things we know to be true, regardless of culture, context or any other confounding variable.

Good design speaks an essential truth. Great design speaks an essential truth, without saying a word.

Meaningful Communication

The difficulty in communicating is not in the act of communication itself. The difficulty in communicating lies in communicating a message meaningfully, across language, cultural and contextual barriers.

Universal communication is based in accessibility

Too many times we think of communication through our lens of the world. It’s easy to communicate with friends and family. In fact, sometimes we even have our own adaptations of language within these close knit groups we belong to. It’s almost as if we intuitively understand each other.

But communication only gets more difficult as we interact with others less familiar to us. Even within groups that speak the same language it can be difficult to communicate.

As a software consultant I often have problems communicating with clients. My clients and I may technically speak the same language but we speak a different technical language, based on our area of expertise. I can talk about user experience, adaptable agile, the power and flexibility of specific languages, or any other buzz word that my co-workers and I may understand but to a client that doesn’t understand our technical jargon I might as well be flinging spaghetti at the wall.

And it only gets more difficult as we try to communicate with others that don’t speak our language. What happens when you travel to another country and you don’t speak the native language? How do you get around? Hope someone knows your language? Point and sign? Cry?

We don’t realize how difficult communication can be until we’re in a situation where we can’t communicate.

Designing Meaning

Communicating universally isn’t easy but it’s not impossible. This is where essential truths come into play. If we create something that is already known and understood, we don’t have to reiterate the meaning.

Communication becomes more meaningful when it doesn’t need to be interpreted or translated.

We’ve all heard the phrase “A picture is worth 1000 words” but why is that true? It’s true because good pictures and illustrations visualize what is trying to be said. Obviously each culture has their own symbols, based on their environment, but you don’t need to know the creator’s language to take a stab at understanding their illustration. Cave paintings were an ancient attempt at universal language.

Early paintings from the Lascaux caves in Southwestern France

Emojis and Brands

Emojis are the modern day version of an attempt at universal language. Sure, emojis are often interpreted contextually but, ultimately, they allow us to communicate without having to say a word.

We’re even seeing brands pick up on this and use it to their advantage as they try to tap into global markets without needing to create multiple messages or campaigns.

Domino’s allows you to order a pizza by texting or tweeting a pizza emoji.

Facebook launched what was supposed to be (but thankfully wasn’t) a dislike button that turned out to be a list of emojis you can react with. Because typing your reaction is hard.

And these are just a sample of brands using emojis to reach a global base

The Noun Project

The Noun Project is another great example of a visual communication standard. The Noun Project was created for “Creating, sharing and celebrating the world’s visual language” and has an icon for just about any word you can think of. Although a specific icon may not be universally understood, every user that takes a stab at it is taking a baby step toward creating understanding.

Obviously this isn’t the end-all-be-all of universal communication, but through collective knowledge and visual communication The Noun Project is on its way toward creating universal meaning.

Designing Attention

It’s hard to grab and keep people’s attention nowadays. Most people get frustrated when they have to wait 5 seconds to see the YouTube video they’re trying to watch. If your site takes more than a couple seconds to load, users will leave. Our attention spans are so quick we don’t even realize how quick they are.


Books used to be long. Look at The Bible. Look at Lord of the Rings. Even Harry Potter. There are still long novels that come out every year, but it’s not nearly as common as it used to be.

Reading, while still valuable and often necessary to educate ourselves, takes effort. There are just so many… words.

Nowadays it’s not uncommon to read a book that has 150 pages or less. And just as commonly we see books turned into audio books.

Yet these books, or audio books, are often priced relative to a book with 700+ pages. Obviously the amount of physical material used to create these products is much less or literally non-existent—So why are we willing to pay the same amount for a book that cost less to make?

We pay for time and knowledge, not words and material.

Just because there is less physical material used to create a book doesn’t mean there is less meaningful information within it. Create value for your user and they won’t think about the price tag. And if they can multi-task during the experience, even better!

Social Media

Nowhere is our rapidly shrinking attention span and dislike for words more apparent than in the realm of social media.

Think of the social media platforms we’ve had since the dawn of the social media. The very beginnings of social media included blogs. Our ideas were expressed in long form, sometimes associated with visuals, but not always.

As we progressed, sites like MySpace and Facebook were created. While long form was still appreciated, it became much more common for our posts to be associated with some sort of visual as well.

Next came Twitter where we were limited to 140 characters or less. We could include visuals but this came at the expense of characters. Twitter forced us to compile our messages with shorthand, compound words and simplified thoughts.

Currently we’re in an age of Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and YouTube (although YouTube has been around much longer). Messages are visualized and script is limited. Or in the case of YouTube, the entire experience is audio/visual. These platforms ask users to be creative in their expression—to create content that speaks to the world, often times without saying a word. And kids are growing up with these platforms nowadays.

We’re being socialized to communicate as quickly as possible with as many people as possible.

A World Without Words

I believe we are entering a period where words will (for the most part) be unnecessary to explain ourselves.

We live in a global economy. Translation is tedious, and often times not even possible, depending on what language(s) you’re translating to and from. Beyond that, the world is moving at an incredible pace. People are perpetually multi-tasking and getting someone to dedicate 100% of their attention to something is rare.

Time is valuable. Attention is sparse. And our designs should take all of this into consideration.

RE: Write

Thoughts and stories from Studio, a product design masters…

Joe Toscano⚡️

Written by

Founder, BEACON // Contributor, @smashingmag @adweek @invisionapp // prev XD, @rga @google. Changing the world w/ a smile, design & some code.

RE: Write

RE: Write

Thoughts and stories from Studio, a product design masters program at CU Boulder, dedicated to re:working, re:designing and re:imagining the world of design and technology.

Joe Toscano⚡️

Written by

Founder, BEACON // Contributor, @smashingmag @adweek @invisionapp // prev XD, @rga @google. Changing the world w/ a smile, design & some code.

RE: Write

RE: Write

Thoughts and stories from Studio, a product design masters program at CU Boulder, dedicated to re:working, re:designing and re:imagining the world of design and technology.

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