The Moral Consciousness of Symbols
Since our distant ancestors scratched the first images on rocks, symbols have only grown in their appeal. They can increase the value of a product a hundredfold, segregate people on the basis of race or gender, and set nations against each other. Is it the symbol itself or the story behind it that is responsible for this power? Do symbols have moral consciousness?
At Lascaux in the southwest of France there is a series of caves containing 17,000-year-old images painted on the walls. We still do not know what they mean, but it is easy to understand that the people who made them wished to leave a message for their descendants. The caves also contain various symbols that were largely ignored by scientists until palaeontologist Genevieve von Petzinger began to categorise them. She discovered that the same thirty-two symbols were also to be found in other caves in various countries, dating from different periods.1
It is noteworthy that elementary symbols such as the arrow, the cross, the triangle, the circle and the square seem to have been conceived independently in different parts of the world. Many of todays symbols and company logos are still based on these basic symbols (fig. 1).2
Mankind has always been fascinated by the potential of symbols to convey universal meanings. The Gestalt theory that was taught at the Bauhaus posited that elementary symbols such as the triangle, circle and square had a universal psychological effect (fig. 2).
In 1931, the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria travelled to remote parts of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in search of the possible universal meaning of symbols.3 He showed drawings of a triangle, a circle and a square to the inhabitants of a small village. The literate population recognised them as abstract symbols but illiterate members of the community saw objects such as a door, a plate or the moon. It appeared that the ability to read abstract symbols is not universal but is acquired.
Luria’s findings were confirmed in 1973 by Andreas Fugelsang’s research into intercultural communications.4 He concluded that people have to learn to read images just as they have to learn to read and write. In societies in which people had limited contact with images, image literacy developed differently to societies with a high traffic in images. This is why an image can communicate a different message in different societies.
Image literacy is very high in contemporary Western societies but there are still clear boundaries to our ability to read symbols. In 1977 a gold LP was placed on the Voyager space probe including symbols intended to explain to extraterrestrial life forms how to play the record and where Earth is located in the universe. Although the instructions are less than forty years old, most of us today would find them unfathomable and indeed many people under the age of thirty would not know how to use a record player (fig. 3).
The measure of man
This book contains the standard measurements of the human body and is still used by designers to ensure that every table and door has the correct dimensions. Upon closer inspection, these standards are morally loaded: the measurements were taken from the entry requirements for the American army. The fact that the average Bolivian woman (the shortest women in the world with a height of 142.2 cm) and men from the Dinaric Alps (the tallest men in the world with an average height of 185.6 cm) fell far outside these design standards was of no concern to Dreyfuss. He believed that designing for the extremes on the spectrum would be too expensive and complicated.6 In this way, a ‘standard’ was in fact an assumption, based on the designer’s world. Consciously or not, design standards make a moral judgment about an ideal person, in this case heteronormative, Western, able-bodied people.
During the modernist period, people were fascinated by the idea of a universal visual language. They believed that communicating with symbols would bridge language barriers and even have the potential to foster equality and reconciliation among nations. This was Viennese philosopher Otto Neurath’s motivation in 1928 when he teamed up with artist Gerd Arntz to develop a visual language called Isotype (International System of TYpographic Picture Education). Neurath was convinced that symbols could communicate complex information in a way that was impossible with words and thus formed the key to universal education. Isotype’s ambition to bridge cultural differences does not mean that it was neutral.
In the diagram entitled ‘Diverse menschenrassen’ (Various races, fig. 5), the white man is placed first and is the only one not coloured black. The other races are depicted in traditional garb, is if people from Africa and Asia did not wear Western clothes at the time. Isotype may have been revolutionary but it was also a product of European colonial thinking and was rooted in a European worldview. This is evident not only in how non-Western ethnicity is represented but also in the ordering and categorisation of the information itself.
We see explicit forms of racism in the symbols used by sports clubs in the United States. In the 1930s many baseball teams adopted Native American mascots. The logos were designed by white Americans who had no knowledge of Native American culture and customs. Some are still in use almost a century later (fig. 6).7
This is especially painful because in the 1930s the federal government actively marginalised indigenous peoples and criminalised some of their cultural practices, such as ceremonial dance.8 Despite wide-scale protests, today there are still more than 2,000 teams with such ethnic mascots.9 These symbols apparently exert such a great power over sports fans that showing respect for a marginalised culture, to which the mascot actually belongs, is of secondary importance.
Design is a man’s job
The best-known symbols for public information signage are a distant relative of Isotype. They were originally designed in 1974 in the United States for the Ministry of Transport and later became a worldwide standard under the name ISO7001 (fig. 7).
Although they are still praised for their neutrality, upon closer inspection it is clear that these symbols communicate an implicit moral message. The symbol for ticket sales shows a man buying a ticket from a woman behind a counter, the symbol for restaurant is a knife and fork, a form of cutlery not used in every culture, and the symbol for a car park is the letter ‘P’ from the English word parking.10 Reading between the symbols, we see a worldview looming that is dominated by Western men.
Recent years have seen an increasing number of initiatives to implement sexual equality in visual communications. In 2007, Vienna, the city in which Isotype was born, began a campaign under the name ‘Vienna sees it differently’ in which gender roles were reversed in public information signage: a pedestrian crossing sign now shows a woman rather than a man and the symbol for baby changing facilities now shows a man changing the baby’s nappy rather than a woman (fig. 8).
There have been similar changes in the digital realm. Caitlin Winner was working as a designer at Facebook when she noticed that the symbol for ‘friends’ showed a man in the foreground and a woman in the background. The ‘groups’ icon also showed a man in the foreground.11 She designed new symbols whose silhouettes are less archetypally male or female and with a more equal relationship between the figures. Her silhouettes are designed in such a way that they allow room for a variety of gender identifications. Her designs are now used on the social-media platform (fig. 9).
Cultural differences in practice
Graphic design is the process of eliminating and abstracting information in order to improve legibility. But how do you avoid offending an entire section of the population? A good principle is to employ humility when representing people who are not part of your community. If it is essential to design symbols for other groups, you should make contact with members of that group and ensure that you don’t make assumptions about other people’s interpretations. These assumptions are made more quickly than you think, as the following example will show.
Figure 10 is a lesson on cultural difference from the Amsterdams Buurvrouwen Contact, an organisation of volunteers who give Dutch lessons to female immigrants. The uppermost image shows three facial expressions and asks which expression corresponds to the sentence ‘the shadow side of life’. Someone from northern Europe would tend to choose the sad face because here we associate shadows with cold and darkness. But someone from a warmer climate might make a very different choice because for them shadows offer respite from the heat.
The second image shows a storm cloud on the left and a tree on the right. The task here is to explain the image in a sentence. A Dutch- or English-speaking person would say that the storm is approaching the tree, but someone who reads from right to left, such as speakers of Hebrew, Arabic or Japanese, would say that the storm is retreating from the tree.12 These examples show very clearly how reading images is dependent on cultural differences.
The erosion of meaning
Every attempt to govern reality with symbols remains restricted to the culture in which they are conceived. Even within a single culture, certain symbols will sooner or later be subsumed by changing morals or the erosion of meaning. During the Second World War, what we now know as the peace symbol was used as a runic sign on SS tanks. It was only after the war that this symbol was appropriated to represent peace and today we no longer associate it with its violent past (fig. 11).
The stereotypical image of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), which is currently the subject of heated debate in the Netherlands, is considered racist by some and not by others. Even so, within a few years this image will be considered totally unacceptable. Looking even further ahead, future generations will be completely unaware of the former significance of this image, just as with the cave paintings at Lascaux.
Sometimes it is interesting or even necessary to consider means of communication that have to bridge thousands of years. Nuclear waste remains radioactive for 24,000 years. In order to store it safely, scientists in the United States were asked to find a labelling solution so that future inhabitants of Earth will not dig up the radioactive materials. They eventually opted for instructions in seven languages, carved in stone, with space for future languages.13 This was a compromise because the scientists concluded that neither language nor symbols could survive such a great timespan. Old English ceased to be spoken only 800 years old but is already incomprehensible today, so what aspect of language or symbols can possibly remain current after 24,000 years.
The desire to communicate with the future is fascinating but perhaps as pointless as our attempts to explain to extraterrestrials how to operate a record player. Artist Trevor Paglen has noted that these attempts at communication simply transcend the boundaries of our imagination.14 No matter how great our faith in the power of language and symbols, we are unable to think beyond the limitations of our human nature.
Adrian Frutiger, Signs and Symbols: Their Design and Meaning, New York 1989. ↩
Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, Design, Writing, Research: Writing on Graphic Design, Londen 1999. ↩
Andreas Fugelsang, About Understanding, Uppsala 1982. ↩
Alvin R. Tilley, The Measure of Man and Woman: Human Factors in Design, New York 1993. ↩
Ibid. p. 10. ↩
C. Richard King (red.), The Native American Mascot Controversy: A Handbook, Lanham, MD, 2010. p. 9. ↩
Marc Tracy, ‘The Most Offensive Team Names in Sports: A Definitive Ranking’, The New Republic, 9 October 2013.
Charles Trueheart, ‘Sign Language: At Their Best, Pictograms Tell Us Clearly Where to Go and What to Do; At Their Worst, Things Can Get Interesting.’ American Scholar 77, no. 1, 2008, p. 18. ↩
Introductiecursus voor vrijwilligsters van het Amsterdams Buurvrouwen Contact. Amsterdam, January 2015. ↩
Steve Wagner, ‘Introduction to WIPP Passive Institutional Controls’, presentatie bij Sandia National Laboratories, 27 februari 2012. ↩