The Vocabulary of Visual Communication

Symbols and icons are similar but represent a different form of message. People use symbols to identify concepts, ideas, and religions. It can have cultural values. A peace sign or symbol on a wall delivers a clear concept that has only ideological value and no real image in everyday life. Numbers and letters are icons of science and language. They represent a certain form of knowledge without sharing a visual aspect. They are practical.  

Non pictorial icons meaning is fixed and absolute (…) they represent invisible ideas (…) In pictures, meaning is fluid and variable (…) they differ from real life appearance to varying degrees.

(source: Scott McCloud, Cartoonist)

The picture icons on the other hand have a direct connection between the representation and its meaning. They resemble each other although they can have varying degrees of resemblance. From a photograph to an abstract representation of the photograph we can detect the icon and understand its meaning. The picture of a face, the painting of a face or a happy face drawing are all icons with different level of abstraction. 

The abstraction uses a strategy of simplification of detail, so designers often simplify the shape of the original object to enhance the recognition or impression of observers. 

(source: Arnheim, 1969; Bell, 1913; Gombrich, 1982)

Abstraction and Graphic design walk hand in hand. The graphic designers use is tools and creativity to often simplify a message with the use of icons and imagery. He needs to create a connection with the observer in order to send a (often) clear message. The use of symbols is important as well to communicate different messages. It also depends on the observer and the communication intended. 

Visual abstraction is characterized by a conceptual space where this process exists, by the purpose it should serve, and by the perceptual and cognitive qualities of the beholder. These characteristics can be used to control the process of visual abstraction to produce effective and informative visual representations.

(source: Visual Abstraction, I. Viola, M.Chen, T.Isenberg. 2019) 

Pictorial information is RECEIVED, and we do not (technically) need a degree in contemporary art to understand its message. The connection is instant. We understand the message communicated. But if you take a book, you need some form of education to understand the symbols behind the letters or calligraphy. It is PERCEIVED information.  

Iconic abstractions can travel further from the origin of the picture but still represent its meaning. Garfield is a cat in a comic book, we know it’s a cat, a drawing of a cat even if its not an actual cat . There is still a direct link from the origin and the message. Non –iconic abstractions are the opposite; they have no reference outside the art object or the picture plane. Just like a painting we do not understand. A good example would be Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist style as a painter and an abstract representation of a picture of him painting and a paint bucket icon. The images are situated at their very own corner of the big triangle of representation.

References and links:

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