In defense of the visual alphabet

My good friend and colleague Christina Wodtke has recently suggested:

“ There is no visual alphabet.”

Like any parent, I feel I must defend my child, or at the very least, assure that it gets a fair trial.

For I am a parent of the visual alphabet. One of them, anyway. So let me begin by introducing you to my baby, in case you haven’t seen it. The visual alphabet:

The visual alphabet.

So why the heck should you care about a few simple squiggles? That’s a great question.

In her post, Alphabets and Ideographs, Christina wrote that she likes to imagine that the visual alphabet was drawn in a bar on a cocktail napkin. I’m glad that it seems that simple, because it was designed to be simple. But just because something is simple does not mean it was easy.

The visual alphabet was not created in a bar on a cocktail napkin. It was something I thought long and hard about, and it has a reason for being.

It first entered my imagination because I was frustrated that visual thinking had gotten short shrift in the education system. There was no standard curriculum for visual thinking in grade-school education. “Reading, writing and arithmetic” was the core curriculum, and still is, in most places. “Art” is an afterthought, not taken seriously by most teachers and students.

This rankled me, because I believe that visual thinking is just as important as “the big three.” Even a casual survey of the history of innovation, from Galileo to Einstein, will reveal that visual thinking is an important and useful language for exploring and understanding the world, as well as communicating ideas.

Visual thinking by Copernicus, Galileo, Leonardo, Darwin, Edison, Einstein.

So why is visual thinking not taken seriously, like written language and mathematics, in elementary education?

For one thing, those disciplines evolved a set of simple symbols that could be easily learned, (like ABCDEFGHIJ, 0123456789) and which then served as basic building blocks that could be used to teach spelling, vocabulary, grammar, addition, multiplication, division, and so on. They provided an important scaffolding that allowed people to learn, and to teach, how to use the language.

The influence of these simple symbol systems is profound and far-reaching. In addition to their utility for thinking and communicating, they enabled innovations like the printing press, the typewriter, and the keyboard I’m using to write this post.

But visual thinking, on the other hand, in most schools (Stanford being a notable and glorious exception) has just not been taken seriously. Sadly this is still the case in many places, although it is starting to change.

When I first started thinking about this in the early 2000s, I looked around for a visual alphabet, but at that timeI could not find anything simple enough to meet the basic criteria of being easily teachable and learnable. I did not discover Ed Emberly until later. If I had found a visual alphabet I would certainly have championed it.

So I embarked on a thorough survey of signs and symbols in use over the past 5,000 years, looking for the most basic, common themes, and found some common forms. These became the basis of what I started calling the visual alphabet. I first shared this online in April, 2008, in a short video titled Forms, fields, and flows.

The Apple Newton was the first hand-hgeld device to feature handwriting recognition.

If you watch the video you will notice that the “alphabet” was still in an early stage and has evolved since then. The most notable difference is “loop” which was added later, after I showed the early version to Stepan Pachikov, co-founder of Evernote and a pioneer in handwriting recognition who worked on the original Apple Newton.

He quickly noted “This is good, but you forgot loop!” A flaw that I quickly corrected. Based on the Forms, Fields and Flows video I was invited to speak at a conference on visual language in 2008, where Inpresented the concept. Some fascinating ideas were presented there, including an idea about how principles from ancient Mayan hieroglyphics could improve military communication.

The full alphabet as it is known today was first published in Gamestorming in 2010.

Christina writes,

“ I kept wondering, why are they [visual alphabets] all different? If it’s an alphabet, something basic to all doodles, why isn’t it standard? Like the roman alphabet: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ?”

“Visual alphabets” by Ed Emberly, Dave Gray, Mike Rohde, Dan Roam, and David Sibbet.

Interesting question. Why is there not a standard visual alphabet? Christina suggests that the visual alphabet is a concept that nobody has agreed upon. Although some details differ, I see much more agreement than disagreement in the “alphabets” above.

Alphabets don’t become standards overnight. Like language, they evolve. The Roman alphabet is a standard that evolved over thousands of years and is still far from universal. By the time the original alphabet was “invented” by the Greeks, it had already been percolating for a couple of thousand years. The Greek alphabet was derived from the Phoenicians, who in turn derived their “alphabet” from Egyptian hieroglyphics. When the Greek alphabet was eventually appropriated by the Romans, the Greeks kept the original and still use it today, although the Phoenician alphabet and Egyptian hieroglyphics have fallen out of use.

After thousands of years, we still do not have a global standard phonetic or symbolic alphabet, although Arabic numerals have fared rather well and might be considered a global standard.

Actually, when I compare where we are with the visual alphabet after only a few years, I think it is doing remarkably well. Compare the wide variations during the evolution of the Latin alphabet with the current variations of the visual alphabet, below.

Form variation in the evolution of the Latin alphabet vs. form variation in “visual alphabets.”

Christina seems to see this variation in visual alphabets as an invalidation of their usefulness, but I see quite the opposite: validation. People generally don’t copy or develop variations on them if they are not useful. The fact that so many people who are teaching visual thinking require a symbol-set like this is powerful evidence that such a thing is useful and needed.

On Christina’s primary point — that a visual alphabet is only a starting point — I fully agree. The next step is to develop a vocabulary, and a grammar, and the many other elements that make language useful. And I agree with most of the things Christina talks about in her post.

She writes:

“Artistic license is the secret! You have to make your own language!”

In a way, we all have to make our own language. “Just do your own thing” can be a useful concept. Hundreds of years ago Tao-Chi said “The method which consists in following no method is the perfect method.” But the point of language, after all, is to communicate, so language, to have value, must be based on some shared norms.

She writes:

“ 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.”

“Copy till it feels right” is also a time-honored tradition and has its place. Most art instruction involves some copying of old masters.

Christina did not mention studying nature, which is another time-honored tradition, and, I think, perhaps the most important practice in visual thinking.

She writes:

“ 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.)”

Well, I’d prefer something more like “shapes are just the beginning.” Even something as simple as drawing circles should not be lightly dismissed. Making marks — lines and shapes — is the start of making meaning. Picasso said frequently that the path to truly original work was to try to draw a perfect circle. Circle-drawing is practiced daily by some Zen monks and considered a path to enlightenment.

To be useful, any language requires some set of shared norms and rules. As the ideas to be explored and communicated become more complex this becomes even more important. Visual language is, in some ways, as old as the hills. In other ways it is just coming into its own.

“If an artist knows the rules and principles, his work will become faultless and he need have no fear of not succeeding. He may feel bound or restrained for some time, but he will become able to transcend the rules.”

Li-K’an, Essay on Bamboo Painting, 14th century.

An old art-school adage is that you must know the rules before you can break them. This is because rules, like alphabets, vocabulary, and grammar are important scaffolding that help others move more quickly up the learning curve. The value of a language grows like the value of any network standard: The more people that become familiar with, and fluent in, a language, the more powerful it becomes.

Christina is right to say that the rules are inconsistent today. For the most part, they are nascent. They are emerging. We are in the early stages of its evolution. Progress is inconsistent. Maps, for example, have evolved some consistent standards: scale, legends, and a set of conventions for depicting roads, borders, bodies of water and so on. Thanks to Edward Tufte, there are some excellent standards for the visual display of quantitative information. A standard set of rules does not exist. But we should be working together to figure them out.

The visual alphabet was never intended to be an end in itself, any more than the Latin alphabet or Arabic numerals. They are simply building blocks to get people started and give them a common framework for working with more complex ideas.

It is still very early days for visual language, and I still believe the visual alphabet is an important concept and an important curriculum that needs to be developed. It should be taught in grade schools alongside English, other languages, and mathematics.

“Make your own language” feels like a step backward for visual language. If we want it to be seriously considered as a peer to reading, writing and arithmetic, we need to develop some rigor and discipline. We need to think of it as language, not just drawing. This is not to say that we need rigid rules. Language is a living thing, it evolves over time organically, and the rules, it seems to me, often come later. Standard spelling in English did not begin emerge until the 1500s, in part driven by the invention of the printing press. That kind of standardization is something visual thinking is not ready for yet.

But we should be thinking about it. The fact that there are no explicit, codified rules and standards does not mean that there are not such things as good and bad form, good and bad habits, well-formed ideas and poorly-formed ones. We can see these things intuitively, but just because we have not articulated the deep structures does not mean they do not exist. We should be looking for these deep structures, principles and commonalities that make visual language such an effective mode of thinking and communicating.

I want to add that do believe that Christina and I are, broadly speaking, on the same page. We are friends and colleagues, and part of the same movement, along with Ed Emberly, David Sibbet, Dan Roam, Sunni Brown, Mike Rohde, Austin Kleon, and many others. We agree far more than we disagree.

Visual language is a powerful tool for exploring, understanding, and communicating complex ideas. It should be a standard, not only in education, but in all fields, including business, government, and academia.

Dave Gray is the founder of XPLANE and author of three books: Gamestorming, The Connected Company, and Liminal Thinking.




Thoughts and musings from the visual thinkers, co-creators, and culture champions behind XPLANE Design Consultancy.

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Dave Gray

Dave Gray

Founder, XPLANE. Author, The Connected Company and Gamestorming

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