Ideograms came up in a recent conversation with Bonnie DeVarco and I realized that my corresponding articles are not mentioned on my website. This brief survey is for Bonnie, and for anyone else who cares about visual communication. And if you do not care, what I am about to say might help you change your mind.
In 1999 the International Visual Sociology Association asked in a call for abstracts whether science may become something larger when visual techniques are included in its repertoire of tools. In my presentation I answered that question positively by showing a method where the claims can be stated with the help of ideograms. The IVSA researchers used photographs to extend the vocabulary of sociology. I proposed ideograms as a visual technique complementary to photography. While photographs show what is visible, the ideograms can depict abstract entities such as the culture and the wellbeing. That makes ideograms suitable for developing abstract, general results and theories in ‘soft’ sciences, and about subjects of general interest.
At the core of this method is a justification or ‘proof’ technique. The idea is to design a way of looking or scope and offer it to the reader, together with a certain claim or view. If by looking through the provided scope the reader sees what is claimed, then we have a successful instance of a communication ‘experiment.’ And if our scope works for everyone, or nearly so, and if our claim cannot be ‘falsified,’ then we have something that rather closely resembles a ‘repeatable experiment.’
An attractive side of this method is that it can in principle be applied to any question and any sort of statement. Even emotional and ethical statements can be justified. This is useful because rational understanding is not always sufficient; we also need to be able to relate to sitations emotionally and ethically, and act. Visual and in particular ideographic techniques are a natural medium for making such statements.
In a sequel to the mentioned work, at InfoDesign 2000 conference in Coventry, Great Britain the following year, I introduced the notions perspective and gestalt, to point at further uses of visual information and specifically ideograms. The perspective corresponds to the intuitive notion ‘whole truth.’ The gestalt is an interpretation of a situation that points at a suitable course of action (for example ‘Grandfather is having a hart attack’). In the over-all approach to information I was developing, those two notions ended up having a central role. As pointed out by the bus (or Information Design Challenge) ideogram, a purpose that information and informing must fulfill in our society is to show us the way, which readily translates into ‘providing us a correct gestalt’. And for a gestalt to be reliable, it needs to be based on complete evidence and understanding, i.e. on a clear and correct perspective. To secure that, we must look at an issue from all sides, which often requires that we design new ways of looking and speeking (scope design).
Gestalt messages are as a rule implicit in conventional work with information. An obvious example is advertising, which is conceived as a way of making us believe that having certain things is of great value, without giving us a chance to evaluate this belief rationally. But the gestalt messages can also be more subtle. A newspaper may give us the message that sustainability is not an issue of great importance by simply not talking about it.
By providing a means for explicitly stating and justifying the gestalt claims (showing the nature of a situation and what needs to be done in a democratically verifiable way) the method I was proposing provided a suitable answer to the Inormation Design Challenge – an informing that can show us the way.
At the International Visual Literacy Association’s annual meeting in Iowa in 2001 a panel was held about a persisting theme – the definition of visual literacy, but no conclusion was reached. The following night I was jet-lagged and thought about how the presented views might be put together with the help of some polyscopy. The next morning I described my idea to Lida Cochran, an impressively vital 80-year old lady in wheelchair, the only surviving IVLA founder. Lida liked the idea and had me present it in a special session. In the following year I developed this idea further and published it as Perspective of Visual Literacy in the 2002 issue of IVLA Selected Readings. In this article i introduced an approach to definition based on the notion of perspective, and with the help of ideograms, which makes it possible to pinpoint what is essential about a subject. Before publishing the article I sent it to Lida, who responded enthusiastically.
I summarize these ideas about visual communication and ideograms with the help of this Polyscopic Information ideogram. This ideogram depicts the information that is a suitable support for making conscious choices (responding to Information Design Challenge) as an ‘i’ inscribed in a triangle. The ‘i’ is composed as a circle on top of a square. The square stands for detailed, analytical and precise information that illuminates an issue from all sides and thereby provides correct perspective. The circle stands for abstract, synthetic, intuitive and suggestive high-level information that speaks directly to our senses and provides a correct gestalt. The former is verbal, the latter visual. The former is detailed, the latter concise. The former is a multiplicity of documents, the latter a single message. For information (i) to be complete, suggests this ideogram, we need both (the circle and the square). The position of the circle on top of the square suggests that the information that provides a gestalt needs to be solidly founded on (or justified by) a many-sided analysis that provides a correct perspective.