Meaning Guide

Making visual language less subjective

I once heard about an argument breaking out in an ISO committee meeting about whether or not pictures should be included in the specification of a new management system standard.  The pro-picture lobby argued that the wording was too hard to understand without a diagram.  The anti-picture lobby argued that including pictures would introduce an element of subjectivity, whereas the words could all be rigorously defined in the prologue.

I think a lot of this stems from a misunderstanding of what visual language should and shouldn’t be used for.  We’ve written before about this – try explaining a 2×2 matrix, or the shape described by a quadratic equation, or the outline of North America – in words!  But when you start trying to visualise more conceptual content – business models, social systems, customer journeys and the like – the question remains, to what degree will the visual meaning be subjective?

This is a problem we’ve struggled with a lot over the years, and we’ve discovered that while you can clearly never completely eradicate subjectivity entirely, you can go an awful long way.  Once more, my favourite everyday example of this is the way we use maps.  When you pull up Google maps, you don’t spend your time thinking how subjective the visual language is, because you’re too busy using the visual language to explore, locate yourself, or find a route.  The reason is that wherever possible the visual language of the map corresponds with your experience of the world – trees are green, rivers look blue, and so on.

Now what’s true of maps is also true of conceptual pictures.  The more your visual language corresponds to the way people experience the world, the clearer the meaning will be.  Just to be clear, I’m not saying that pictures aren’t subjective.  The point is that there are ways of depicting things that 99% of people will read the same way.

There will always be 1% who see the world in a beautifully, stimulatingly non-conventional way.  But the point of all types of language – whether visual or verbal – is to convey meaning.  If you want to create visuals that 99% of people read the same way, then there are a number of principles you need to understand about the mind and the visual intelligence.  One of the main purposes of this site is to share what these principles are … stay tuned!

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