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Visual language and design

Just like every country has a spoken language of their own they also have a visual language and it may surprise you to know that the associations you have with colors shapes and so on are the complete opposite somewhere else.

One association I think is hilarious is that of blue and red in politics (in the U.S.) red=right and blue=left because in the meanwhile in the rest of the world the opposite is true.  So, you get hired by a political party in Europe to design a campaign and you give them something that is just perfect….for their rivals, ha!

Sometimes you can easily see where the associations and meanings came from. The red for the left obviously arises from communist countries adopting red for their flags etc, but then you get these completely unexpected colors like purple for the anti-monarchy party in Spain…considering purple was always the color of royalty (in Europe at least) Except of course Netherlands, their royalty was all about orange, but use orange in Ireland and you are pissing off the Irish republicans (it is the color of the British unionists, that’s why the flag has a white band between the green and orange, white=hoping for peace between those two, ouch)…and the list goes on with colors.


At least we can all agree that swastikas are bad.  Except if you are in Asia where they can symbolize peace, the universe and all sort of warm and fuzzy feelings or for some Native American tribes where the meaning can be a spiritual migration or a symbol of astronomical reference. In short, even things you just knooooow mean one thing, probably mean something diametrically opposed elsewhere.

I find this stuff to be fascinating but more importantly it serves as a reminder of the fact that I do not speak the visual language or every target and that before drawing the first line, choosing a font or selecting a swatch, our job as designers is to figure out who the hell we are trying to reach.

Once you know who they are, you figure out what their visual language is, go as deep as you can, try to learn not just the meaning of colors, shapes, etc but the etymology…where does that come from? Why? By answering these questions, you get a richer perspective on the target audience and this understanding will make all the difference in the world.

Think spoken language

If you think about it in terms of spoken language it goes something like this…You are asked to write a speech about monkeys, so naturally you write it in English only to find out the target audience speaks Spanish, so you rewrite it in Spanish, right? The thing is there are give or take about 20 different countries that speak Spanish, each with their idioms and flavor and nuances…I mean, the word bicho can mean bug, critter, penis or naughty depending where you are. If you meant to tell the audience how these cute critters climb trees but end up telling them that…well you get the idea. 

On top of that, each of these countries is also subdivided like any other place, there is formal, informal Spanish, there is a difference if you are addressing teenagers or adults and the list goes on. So, you can write about monkeys in “Spanish” and yeah, they will probably understand what you are saying, but will they feel what you are saying?

Now take all that and come to grips with the fact that spoken language behaves pretty much the same as visual language. The moral of the story is this, find out who you are talking to, and adopt their way of communication before you even think about turning your computer on or picking up a pencil and the results will probably surprise you.

Sound and color

Universal truths in design?
I have often wondered if there is deeper meaning in colors, shapes and so on or if the meaning is completely given by our society. While the visual language changes from place to place implying there is no universal underlying meaning to anything there do seem to be some interesting things going on.  Sound and color are deeply entangled, people always intuited this thanks to synaesthetes but now there are studies shedding light into how the rest of the world experiences sound and color.

One interesting study from Radboud University in Edenborough shows that most people associate colors with vowels! That is pretty huge, it implies that everyone has certain intuitions about the way sounds correlate with colors, not just synaesthetes.

Apparently Aa is a bit redder than green.

In the study mentioned, over a thousand people took a test where they chose colors for 16 spoken vowels.  The vast majority felt that Aa was more red than green and that ee had a lighter rather than darker quality regardless of being synesthetic. One of the researchers was quoted saying “There seems to be a logic to how we link sound and color, and the structure of language has an important role in this process.”

Studies have also found that color is also linked to the pitch of the sound, the lower the pitch, the darker the color and viceversa. In theory you could translate from sound to image, you could make a picture worth quite literally a thousand words (spoken words that is, written have no sound)

Dingemanse says, “If color associations were purely dependent on acoustical factors, the color would neatly run into one another like in a rainbow. Instead, we see that sounds are grouped according to the way that our language carves up the vowel space: a few blue spots and then suddenly a red one, with no transition of blue-purple-red. You could say that the vowels have to pass through the sorting machine that is our language before we can link color to them, even in synaesthetes, for whom associations like these are involuntary.”

Synaesthetes seem to be more systematic with their associations, that being said some patterns seem to occur everywhere, for example colors chosen for ee and ay tend to be very close to one another while aa and oo tend to be further apart.

 When it comes to visual language, it would be nice if colors had a correlation with meaning rather than sound but it is something. After all it is speculated that all languages come from a common origin which could give colors a universal meaning once upon a time.  I know, it’s a bit much but I still think this is cool enough to share 😊