Getting The Point Across

Language is pretty fantastic as a way of symbolically encoding information into lexemes and then written or verbal data. It’s always telling when you learn another way in which culture and language are built around each other, as the translation (lossy compression) process forces the data a ceertain way. To put it another way, thoughtspace is way more infinite than wordspace, and it’s hard to express ideas without distorting them a little bit in the telling.

That said, even relatively simple and long-established ideas still get lost in the telling. We’re certainly getting better at this; in the last few years usability has become a priority for corporate, academic, and governmental designers. Still, we haven’t found a simple lexicon for symbols.

So many of our signs have cultural or lexical meaning attached to them – really they’re encoded and not everyone has the keys to get to the data inside, unless they have prior exposure to the symbols used. Yes, I have some examples!

(At this time, please extinguish your cultural mind as far as possible, and use only conscious reasoning for the remainder of this post.)

  • Dig this faucet. You just got to a new country, and who knows whether cold is on the right or the left here? Good thing you read English, but if you didn’t, you’d be out of luck. That’s encoded data. (Also interesting: if instead of ‘Hot’ and ‘Cold’, it were heiroglyphics or kanji, would it be fixed? Maybe, if the characters you used weren’t too lossy.)
  • It’s obvious to us which of these is hot and which is cold, but that’s because we’ve all agreed to the standard. But this is still encoded – hot water isn’t actually red at all. One could make a case for this simple encoding, though – lakes are blue and coals are red – and it’s a pretty good one. There’s simply a little bit of intuition and guesswork going on, but it might be necessary. The red/blue temperature grammar is a pretty common one, at any rate.

One totally culture-encoding free way of conveying information is to use an actual representation – the way some bus stops have a picture of a bus. Not easy mistaking that one. However, look what happens here – we’d have to show the water molecules vibrating in place, faster for the hot water, to show what the difference is in the physical world. Well, that assumes a significant amount of prior knowledge of physics, and more people in the world likely speak English than know very much about molecules. We could do it a lot of different ways, but I can’t think of a perfect one, so comment if you were able to think of it.

4 Replies to “Getting The Point Across”

  1. What if when you touched the faucet handle it was either a little hot or a little cold, depending on which water supply you were touching? This would ensure that people of all languages knew which faucet was which, as well as cluing in blind people.

  2. If one of them had fire on it, you could probably assume that was hot. Fire is pretty basic to our species and more than likely the reason we associate red with warm/hot.

    Alece’s idea could be implemented easily… if you had the hot water knob made of an insulating material like rubber it would feel warmer in comparison to leaving the other knob bare metal.

  3. A few more thoughts on the subject.

    Small LCD screens with 10 second clips. The bus stop might be confused for the bus parking lot if you just show the symbol of the bus stopped. A clip of the bus stopping, passengers getting on, and then pulling away leaves less to he interpretation.
    Obviously not cost effective, but in 50 years? Hell, 5 years even.
    All of our common symbols are only common because they are generally accepted by most people. A company like Wal-Mart or McDonald’s could effectively make blue mean Hot given enough time and energy. Symbols are relative, just because it makes sense, doesn’t mean it will be used, or even allowed to be used my external forces.
    Finally, think of a heart with and arrow through it. Love. The symbol represents the word, but the word itself can’t be defined clearly. When you hear the word, you conjure thoughts of YOUR past feelings of love, or lack of love. Is this really expressing the feelings of the person saying it?

    The potentially confusing nature of all symbols are not so different from the confusing nature of language itself. This however is rarely discussed.

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