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Chapter 17 - Communications: from Speech to Pictograms and Heraldic signs

Perhaps, more than any other human activity, it is communication that defines us as human beings. Intuitively we can perceive that graphic design is a tool developed for the purpose of communicating a message. However, graphic design also has an artistic element consisting of composition, colors, geometric surfaces, lines, written information, and so on.As in any other tool, the form of a graphic work must align with its purpose of conveying a message. Of course, graphic design is not the only tool for communication. We learn how to communicate when we start to talk, and when we talk we start to think about ourselves and about the universe that surrounds us. Since, almost all of us can speak a language, it would be easier to analyze communication via language. As we will see, there is a close mapping from understanding language to the communication of graphic design.

We often forget that to receive, to decipher, and to understand the spoken concepts in real time is a formidable task for an infant. First, the child needs to recognize individual words from continuous speech. Later in life, they need to associate the sound input with a visual form to read and write. Their education on words continues with abstract concepts and definitions in association with that word. Meanwhile, they have to learn how to ignore or attenuate irrelevant and disruptive elements of the communication signals. Nevertheless, over the years these functions are performed effortlessly by our brains. Any language is also a tool for communication. It has a form which consists of sounds (phonology), words (morphology), sentences (syntax), and recursion.

Mapping Speech with Graphic Design

Phonology, is the technique of producing a sound using lungs, larynx, mouth and nasal cavity. If we map this into graphic design we would speak of lines, colors and surfaces that create an image. Morphology is the study of rules that allows us to combine sounds in order to create a word. For example, the word carelessly is created by a juxtaposition of three syllables or sounds, care, less, and ly. With a minimal modification, we can get the opposite meaning in the form of carefully; or change it from an adverb into a noun in the form of carelessness ; or even qualify it further in the form of over-carelessly . In graphic design, various aesthetic criteria regulate the creation of geometric, organic, or abstract forms. 

Syntax has to do with how words are combined to form meaningful sentences. This role is assigned to the overall composition and balance of the work. Finally, recursion is a process that allows a speaker to create an infinite number of meaningful sentences from a finite number of words. For example; we can say: "Cezanne can be regarded as the father of cubism and minimalism." We can create a recursive sentence by saying, "Cezanne can genuinely be regarded as the true father of cubism and minimalism in painting and graphic design." We can qualify each of the terms again to have a new statement: "In the western tradition, Cezanne can genuinely but not exclusively be regarded as the true and intellectual father of cubism and minimalism in representational painting and graphic design." Thus, this process can create a seemingly infinite number of possibilities. 

In graphic design, we can argue that we have also the ability to modify various elements of our compositions to create an infinite array of images. After all, if all the possibly finite combination of colors, lights, forms, composition and so on are tried and exhausted, an artist has still the option of qualifying a work with words- Such as René Magritte did in his works 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe' and Ceci n'est pas une pomme . In fact, when Max Ernst defaced one version of Magritte's painting and painted a caged bird in the apple, and wrote underneath 'Ceci n'est pas un Magritte' he was manifesting even further possibilities of recursions in art, although this particular recursion prompted only a forced laugh from the Belgian artist.

Ancient philosophers thought that the words that they used, such as "Love", "Amour", "Liebe", "حب", "مهر", "प्यार" ,"愛", self-contained the 'true' meanings of those words. Modern day linguists, however, think that there is an element of randomness at work when a language assigns a particular word to a meaning. Nevertheless, when a speaker uses a word he assumes and hopes that the listener would associates the same meaning he has in mind to that word. But, even for an adult, communication involves some complicated mental functions. First, in processing language, a speaker needs to select the appropriate word from a list of various mental lexicons, and yet any individual word such as 'bat' (the act of striking something with an object) in our mental lexicon must be distinguished from other words that are similar in sound like 'batt' (a sheet of matted cotton). As well, they must be distinguished from those words that are similar in shape and spelling to 'bat.' That is, 'bat' can refer to a flying mammal, a heavy stick, a fragment of brick, or a whip used by a jockey. Furthermore, the speaker must chose the particular meaning of 'bat' from a list of synonyms like 'bang', or 'belt'. How does a speaker select the appropriate lexical entry from such options? Some linguists argue that the words are chosen by characteristics such as understandability, Iconicity, and economy.

Iconicity and Images

In the world of graphic design, the question of representation appears to be almost identical with understandability, Iconicity, and economy. As the above two images demonstrate, the problems resulting from the various homonyms for 'bat' are rarely of relevance. After all, "a picture is worth a thousand words" . Pictograms and infographics are keystones of nonverbal and multicultural communication. They are used for traffic signs, transporting various materials, and in medical circles worldwide, and are seen by almost everyone. Pictograms, are basically representative images we use to replace words or visualize actions, and are often seen either replacing or accompanying a textual instruction. Infographics, as the name implies, use graphical illustrations to create instructive images, which are aimed to simplify complicated processes. For example, traffic signs do not use words and are able to communicate across various cultures.

Nevertheless, pictograms when are used to represent company logos, political insignia or heraldic badges conjure up various cultural, ethical, and sociopolitical issues of interpretation which would be discussed as we proceed but here it suffices to say that such issues are as complicated as the linguistic issues of communication.


To Be or Not to Be, A rebus, by Guity Novin 

A rebus, from Latin meaning "by things" is a kind of word puzzle which uses pictures to represent words or parts of words, such as "T,4,2" instead of "tea for two". Rebus has played an important role in the creation of alphabets. In 1977, the New York State Department of Commerce recruited Milton Glaser, a productive graphic designer to work on a marketing campaign for New York State. Glaser created this rebus-style icon which became a major success and has continued to be sold for years. The stunning simplicity of this message reminds us of Einstein's razor, A message should be expressed as simple as possible- but should not be oversimplified.


Milton Glaser's career paved the way for design and illustration to be intelligent and to serve causes that have a social impact. His minimal drawing style echoed the iconography of comic books or the dynamic of contemporary Pop Art. During the 1960s, he created images of flat shapes formed by thin, black ink contour lines with color added by adhesive color films.  His approach to sign and symbol is seen in the 1968 ''One Print One Painting''exhibition poster. The work produced at this studio encompasses a wide range of design disciplines. He re-designed numerous magazines, such as "Paris Match", "L'Express" and "Esquire". As well,  he created 'Epigram' for Botanist, a series of playful furniture pieces that are both classic and innovative.  

Paul Rand (1914 – 1996) was an American graphic designer, best known for his corporate logo designs, including the logos for IBM, UPS, Westinghouse, ABC, and the now-infamous Ernon. He was one of the originators of the Swiss Style of graphic design.Rand’s defining corporate identity was his IBM logo in 1956, which as Mark Favermann notes “was not just an identity but a basic design philosophy that permeated corporate consciousness and public awareness." The logo was modified by Rand in 1960, and the striped logo was introduced in 1972. The stripes were introduced as a half-toning technique to make the IBM mark slightly less heavy.He believed that a logo “cannot survive unless it is designed with the utmost simplicity and restraint". The above poster is a rebus he created for IBM, in which M represents the striped logo. But this rebus says something more about the IBM, the eye indicates the visualization of information, and the bee (like the butterfly in Microsoft's window logo) is symbol of search for nectar.

This logo was used in the US as a stamp of authentication or certification for ambulances or emergency medical services. The Star of Life, which is a blue, six-pointed star and features the Rod of Asclepius in the center, was originally designed and governed by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Internationally, "the Rod of Asclepius" represents emergency medical services. Many medical organizations use the rod as their logo since it symbolizes the art of healing. The main advantage of a pictogram is that one does not need to be able to read or to understand a particular language in order to be able to understand the information it conveys. However, in this case one must know the Greek mythology in order to understand why this pictogram represents healing. 

The Myths of Caduceus and Asclepius

According to the legend, the Greek god Hermes (the Roman Mercury ) wanted to stop a fight between two snakes, and so he threw his rod at them. Originally, the Caduceus was represented as an olive branch with garlands or ribbons, but it was later interpreted as a rod with two snakes and a pair of wings as a representation of  the Talaria of Mercury or his winged sandals, a symbol of his speed in delivering a message. 

Both Hermes and Mercury are identified as messengers of gods. Mercury is also considered the god of merchants, travelers, and thieves and their protectors. As such, the Caduceus symbol is unrelated to health, and neither god has anything to do with medicine.

Asclepius is the god of Healing. He is the son of Apollo (god of healing, truth, and prophecy) and the nymph Coronis. While pregnant with Asclepius, Coronis secretly took a second, mortal lover. When Apollo found out, he sent Artemis to kill her. While Coronis burned on the funeral pyre, Apollo felt pity and rescued the unborn child from the corpse. Asclepius was taught about medicine and healing by the wise centaur Cheiron and became so skilled in it that.  His daughters are Hygieia (goddess of cleanliness), Iaso (goddess of recuperation from illness), Aceso (goddess of the healing process), Aglea (the goddess of splendor and adornment), and Panacea (goddess of universal remedy).

Asclepius succeeded in bringing one of his patients back from the dead. Zeus, king of the gods, felt that the immortality of the Gods was threatened and struck down the healer with a thunderbolt. At Apollo’s request, Asclepius was placed among the stars as Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer. 

In the Iliad, Homer mentions Asceplius only as a skillful physician and the father of two Greek doctors at Troy, Machaon, and Podalirius; in later times, however, he was honoured as a hero and eventually worshiped as a god. The cult began in Thessaly but spread to many parts of Greece. Because it was supposed that Asclepius effected cures of the sick in dreams, the practice of sleeping in his temples in Epidaurus in South Greece became common. In 293 B.C. his cult spread to Rome.

Why, one may ask, we use an obscure mythology to represent a medical service? Is this perhaps a reminder of our tribal instincts to worship our ancestors, or do we want to celebrate the memories of a rich cultural heritage. These are the types of questions a graphic designer should ask.


This is Italian traffic sign for no passing. The red circle around the two cars coveys the idea of "Not Allowed", and is called an Ideogram. The role of this ideogram is determined by the pictogram rules, and is similar to the morphological rule of adding the suffix less to the word care in order to construct the adjective word of careless.

This traffic sign for temporary day time work areas relies on written text and thus is called a Phonogram . Obviously, one needs to be able to read the sign, and to be familiar with the language in order to understand its message.

Unfortunately, as the following images show, the ideograms for warning signs are not yet standardized. Most often a red triangle is used as a warning sign. But in many jurisdictions yellow diamonds are used for warning, while there are others which use a red triangle combined with yellow color. Why the designer of the above sign has used an inverted triangle? Is it because an inverted triangle looks like a downward arrow that indicates a decline sign in stock price charts ?

Heraldry is the practice of designing and displaying ideograms in the form of 'coat of arms' and badges and is common among all nations. For example, Romans used the eagle as their coat of arms, Persians used the sign of their god, Ahura Mazda, and to this day the French still use the fleur-de-lis. The origins of heraldry lie in the need to communicate the family and the rank of combatants when their faces were hidden by iron and steel helmets. Eventually, a formal system of rules developed into ever more complex forms of heraldry.

Examples of Heraldry 

This is a heraldic ideogram of Ahura Mazda: the 'wise lord', the supreme god of the ancient Iranians, whose religion was propagated by the legendary prophet Zarathustra. The Achaemenians also venerated Ahura Mazda. This ideogram was carried in battlefields as the emblem for the Persian empire in 500 BC. It appears that with the emergence of nationalistic sentiments the popularity of this sign has revived among some of the Persian speaking population of Iran in recent years.

This is the imperial coat of arms of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. From the time of Otto the Great onward, the various German princes elected one of their peers as King of the Germans, after which he would be crowned as emperor by the Pope. The last emperor to be crowned by the pope was Charles V; all emperors after him were technically 'emperors-elect', but were universally referred to as Emperor.

The Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom is the official coat of arms of the British monarch.

The shield is quartered, depicting in the first and fourth quarters the three passant guardant lions of England; the rampant lion of Scotland in the second; and in the third, a harp for Northern Ireland.The crest is a statant guardant lion wearing the imperial crown, himself on another representation of that crown. The dexter supporter is a likewise crowned English lion; the sinister, a Scottish unicorn. According to legend a free unicorn was considered a very dangerous beast; therefore the heraldic unicorn is chained, as were both supporting unicorns in the Royal coat of arms of Scotland. The coat features both the motto of English monarchs, Dieu et mon droit (God and my right), and the motto of the Order of the Garter, Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shamed be he who thinks ill of it) on a representation of the Garter behind the shield.

After the declaration of independence on July 4, 1776, there were many attempts to propose a design for a seal for the new United States of America. The first was a committee constituted by Continental Congress, which included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.    Finally, in June 20, 1782, Congress approved, as the great seal of the United States, a design recommended by its Secretary, Charles Thomson. The seal consists of the coat of arms, which is officially blazoned in the original approving legislation as:

    "ARMS. Paleways of thirteen pieces, argent and gules; a chief, azure; the escutcheon on the breast of the American eagle displayed proper, holding in his dexter talon an olive branch, and in his sinister a bundle of thirteen arrows, all proper, and in his beak a scroll, inscribed with this motto, E Pluribus Unum.

    For the CREST. Over the head of the eagle, which appears above the escutcheon, a glory, or, breaking through a cloud, proper, and surrounding thirteen stars, forming a constellation argent, on an azure field."

Thomson's explanation of the symbolism was also approved by the Continental Congress:
  • The thirteen alternating pales represents the states,
  • Supporting and united by Congress, represented by the blue chief. 
  • The colors signify purity and innocence (white), hardiness and valor (red), and vigilance, perseverance and justice (blue).
  • The olive branch and arrows represent the powers of war and peace.
  • The constellation represents a new state taking its place among other sovereign powers.
  • The eagle as sole supporter signifies that the United States "ought to rely on their own virtue."

The motto is translated, "Out of many, one." In 1885, the Department of State commissioned Tiffany and Company of New York to design and cut a new die for the great seal, which ultimately resulted in the standardization of the arms as used throughout the U.S. government. The artist responsible for this rendering was Tiffany's chief designer, James Horton Whitehouse.

The Coat of Arms of Canada as depicted in 1923. The Royal Arms were adopted by proclamation of King George V on November 21, 1921.

The imperial coat of arms of Nasereddin Shah  Qajar of Iran  

The Ottoman Coat of Arms

The Iranian Coat of Arms

 The Arms of the Psi Upsilon Fraternity are described in heraldic terms as a black shield bearing hands and letters of gold as in their badge, around which emblems run what is known as a double tressure, flory counter flory, of silver.

The 'double tressure' alludes to the 'tie that binds,' the secrets, ideals, and aims of the Fraternity.

The black 'shield' was chosen not only because of it's effectiveness , but also because it is the background of the badge.

The 'crest' consists of an owl surmounting Roman fasces. The owl was assigned by the Greeks to Pallas Athena as an emblem of her supernatural wisdom, and by the Romans to Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom. The 'fasces,' which the owl surmounts, was a term given to a bundle of elm sticks or branches bound together with leather thongs or lashes, and containing an axe with its blade projecting from the side. These were carried by 'lectors' (public officials attending Roman magistrates), and were symbols of power.

The colors of the Fraternity are represented by a garnet ribbon on the dexter side of the shield, and by a gold one at the left, from which, united below the shield, depends by a ring the Psi Upsilon badge. The supporters are two silver griffins, typifying watchfulness and strength.

The motto, selected from Plato, translates to: "Unto us has befallen a mighty friendship." For a Greek-letter fraternity, a Greek motto is necessary.

Like Western heraldry, Japanese mons were initially held only by aristocratic families, and were gradually adapted by commoners. Japanese traditional formal attire generally display the mon of the wearer. Commoners without mon often used the one mon belonging to their patron or organization. This specific mon is the coat of arm of the Gion Mamori of Japan.

This is the White Rose of York, a white heraldic rose, which is the symbol of the House of York. Traditionally, the origins of the emblem are said to go back to Edmund of Langley in the fourteenth century, the first Duke of York and the founder of the House of York as a Cadet branch of the then ruling House of Plantagenet. The actual symbolism behind the rose has religious connotations as it represents the Virgin Mary, who was often called the Mystical Rose of Heaven

Go to the next chapter; Chapter 18 - Logotypes and Branding

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. It was a classic 'stumbled upon' which I shall visit again.