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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 😊

Stock photos and the cookie cutter design world

It is so exciting to see good photography in the corporate world, and rare. Like a unicorn, wait nope…unicorns are everywhere these days, like a platypus! You don’t see those too often.

Having access to millions of images for a low price or even free (hell, especially free) is cool, I won’t argue that, but when you start to see the same images popping up in different ads or when the model in your picture feels like a lifelong friend you come to realize either most creatives are being anything but, or that we rely way too heavily on these services.  There is this one model I have seen in just about every country I have been to, in movies, in ads for everything under the sun, she has almost become part of the family. She has to be the most famous unknown in the planet and her images keep mushrooming everywhere, do you recognize her? If not, you might have been hiding under a rock for the last 15 years give or take.

I admit it, I fish out pictures from all these services, the paid and unpaid alike but I do try to stay away from the images I have seen a zillion times.  In case you are wondering. Yes, I have used pictures of the girl mentioned before, guilty…she is after all like family but I refuse to use the one below. The thing is not that I have seen not this model no, but rather this exact same picture at least a dozen times already. This dude must work for about 50 different startups.

So, what is there to do? There is of course taking your own pictures.  The reasons for not taking your own or having a professional do it are either money or time. Which comes out to be the same thing, money. Hiring a photographer is pricey although in most cases you really don’t need to anymore. Everyone is walking around with a super awesome camera in their pockets and considering that 99% of the times (true statistic, I just made it up) the images you use for your creative work will be seen on screen you really don’t need to worry about a million megapixels. Keep in mind that at least in the corporate world the tendency in photography is to go with casual, (hence the popularity of the hipster dude with the beard above) the Hollywood studio glam look with the perfect lighting and super photoshoped faces is now pase and makes you look fake (who knew) so yeah, your phone is just peachy for what you are likely to need.

But it takes time? Time as they say is relative, especially when you spend three hours on shutterstock, adobe stock, pexels, envato and unplash to find the same picture that might work 3 times in 3 different platforms but nothing that reaaaally quite clicks.

Think about it, how long would it take you to enlist someone at the office, shoot 50 or so pictures out of which at least a couple are likely to work and be done with it? Say half an hour? The end result would be a lot more genuine and would likely do more for your business than the stock image. I think one of the reasons we rely on stock companies is the perception that they save time, and while in many occasions they do a lot of the time they do the opposite.

I do think these services are great. Using elements from these pictures to make a composite makes total sense as the final product barely resembles anything that will be recognized as someone else’s work.

And let’s face it they are useful when the client does not have the budget for a photoshoot yet still want decent looking images (even if everyone and their cousin have used and abused them)

Logos, visual language and anachronistic conventions.

Logos, visual language and conventions.

Your logo is your name, only in visual form.  If you could distil the nature of a company or person, the identity, the drive and basically the DNA of an identity and you could turn it into an image, that would be your logo, at least this is the best way I can define it.  This is all well and good but the images that we use to describe things change depending on the visual language.

The whole visual language thing sounds a bit strange, I know…I will write an entry dedicated to that alone but in the mean time think of this way, just like each country has a different spoken/written language they also have a visual language, colors represent different things in different places and for different groups. Just a quick example, in European politics the color red is associated with the left while blue is associated with the right, in the United States the exact opposite is true.  As you can see, not understanding the visual language of your target audience can have dire (even if sometimes funny) results.

Last thing on the menu, conventions.  Conventions have a reason for existing, they are usually simply tried and true methods.  The issue is that we tend to rely on these and take them as gospel. Many are anachronistic and should be challenged, for example:

A logo, needs to be one to two colors max
A logo must be a static image (duh)
It must be simple
It must Appeal to Different Audiences
Relies on trends

Colors and logos…this used to be true back in the day when reproducing blues and reds was difficult for printshops unless they used pantone inks and adding additional plates to a print job was/is expensive so in a bid to keep costs within reason companies would choose the lowest number of colors possible.  Now a days most logos are shown onscreen in 99% of the time where you can go nuts on color, even when you print them however technology has come far since the 50s, reproducing color is no longer impossible/super pricey making this no longer as relevant as in the past. So if your concept calls for many colors I would not hesitate, in fact recently I made a logo with a gradient since the most important thing the client wanted to convey was diversity and what’s more diverse than a color gradient? (don’t worry, it came out fine 😉

So, a logo should be a static image huh, well the truth is we got over this one a while back but only for one industry. The movie industry has for some time enjoyed the use of motion in their logos, this makes sense as what they sell is in fact moving.  Even with these companies the logos tend to animate, then find a static version which is the official logo.  I would argue that there are many instances in which this is no longer necessary, in fact that there are companies that would benefit from a logo in constant motion.  If the company you are designing for is about constant change (say recycling, travel, etc) it just might be what they need, a moving image that reflects that change.

Same applies to simplicity, yes it is great to have a memorable easy to remember image but what if you want to convey complexity? This convention along with the rest should be out the window.

As to appealing to all audiences, this is just silly you may in fact want to exclude everyone but a narrow slice of the population in which case appealing to all audiences would hurt you. It all depends on the company, the situation, the times etc. Think of the aesthetic of a punk rock band, not very inclusive but very effective reaching its intended audience. So enough with this already! Ugh.

Relying on trends, if you want your logo to represent a timeless company then by all means do not rely on trends. Do not discount them however if you are trying to capitalize on a movement or a moment.

In closing, innovation is about adapting to new situations, new technology etc. Design is constantly innovating but somehow things like corporate Identity and logos have been left in the stone age, I think it is time to rethink some of these conventions and pivot to the times in which we live, thoughts?