A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication

The Politics Of Design

By Ruben Peter

The impact of visual communication has increased exponentially. Only a few decades ago visual communication was largely contained within cities or countries. In today’s network society, messages ooze into each other, from Tumblr feeds onto Facebook walls. This allows people from across the planet to meet and socialise, but it can also lead to miscommunication and conflict.

Something that was meant to be funny can incite violent protests the same day on the other side of the world. Communication was and is a volatile process, wherein misinterpretations cannot be entirely avoided. At the root of miscommunication lies the assumption that people will understand us because we use “universal” or “objective” communication. Assumptions of objectivity and universality in design are closely tied to the modernist design principles as they are taught in Western design education. This book is about debunking these assumptions.

There is no simple answer why languages are written from right-to-left or from left-to-right. Egyptian hieroglyphs could be written in both directions (bi-directional) with certain characters used to announce the start of a reading point. The Phoenician alphabet was written right-to-left and Aramaic inherited the tradition.

Arabic and Hebrew are written from right-to-left, and the reason for this may be that their predecessor Aramaic was inscribed in stone with chisel and hammer. A right-handed person would start work from right to left, with the stylus in the left and mallet in the right. The Greeks used clay tablets, which would have them prefer inscribing from left to right, in order not to smudge out words. Latin, Coptic and Cyrillic, which are the successors of the Greek alphabet, write left-to-right.

“When brand names are translated into Chinese, it is done phonetically which can lead to new meanings. In 1928, Coca-Cola translated its name into Chinese characters which could be read as “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax”…They search through 200 combinations that would pronounce the name with a more appropriate meaning. Translators came up with ‘happiness in the mouth’”

“In July 2015, Taylor Swift announced her new album and world tour title T.S. 1989. A marketing campaign and a web shop launched with a spray-painted logo. Journalist Fergus Ryan first noticed that T.S. 1989 could be also interpreted as Tiananmen Square 1989, the year of the student protests in Beijing and the massacre that followed…By the time her tour arrived in cHina, the title T.S. 1989 was abandoned, and the items from the web shop with the spray-painted T.S. 1989 logo were not available to Chinese users.”

The New York City subway was a confusing mess in the 1960s, with inconsistent, haphazard signage that made navigating the system a nightmare for commuters. In 1967, the New York City Transit Authority decided to do something about it. They hired Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda of the design firm Unimark International to design an improved signage and wayfinding system. The designers spent four years studying the labyrinth of the subway, analyzing the habits of commuters, and devising the iconic visual identity of the NYC subway that is still in use today, documented in the 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual.

In 2012, designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth of New York City design firm Pentagram discovered a rare copy of the manual in their office’s basement. They created a website that included scans of the manual to serve as a digital archive of the work that they call “one of the world’s classic examples of modern design” and shared it with friends. Within 72 hours, more than a quarter-million people had browsed the images, and they decided to approach the MTA about republishing the manual in all its full-size, printed glory.


“‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet’ are the first words of the dummy text used by the typesetting and printing inudstry since the 1500s. Originally a Latin text by Cicero from the first centry BC, the text was adapted to mimic the appearance of European languages. The letters K,W, and Z were added (which are not used in Latin), and words were changed to appear more random…The typographic term for using dummy text is ‘greeking’ — just like saying ‘this is greek to me’”

“Why is pink the colour for girls and blue the colour for boys? In the nineteenth century, girls and boys were both dressed in white because it was easier to clean. After WWI, department stores in the U.S. realised they could make more money if baby products would be gender specific. Pastels were in fashion, and it was decided that pink would be the colour for boys, and blue for girls. In the 1940s, market research in the U.S. suggested the colour should be the other way around, and the ‘baby boom’ generation was the first where the girls were dressed in pink and the boys in blue.”

“After pressure from the Russian government, Google was forced to change it, so people in Russia now see it as Russian territory on Google maps. Outside Russia it is still marked as a disputed area.”

“When the sales of iPhones were presented in 2013, the graph showed extraordinary growth in sales. The graph was cumulative, adding the sales of each year onto the previous year.” (see above)

However, once you view the quarterly results (see below) the results take a different tone with sales dropping over the last two quarters.



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