Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Icon Is Worth 500 Words

We used to communicate more with words, but a lot of it is done with cartoons today. People are pleased to call them “icons,” but that’s a helluva stretch; icons were originally sacred art, and they had a religious message.  

We get our messages from a different kind of art today; signs with pictures on them. We’re surrounded by signs trying to show us things we should do or not do. I guess you could call them pictographs; the dictionary does relate that to primitive writing. But I submit they’re all cartoons: “a drawing symbolizing an action, situation, or person of topical interest” according to the dictionary. What’s a cigarette in a circle with a red slash though it? It’s a drawing symbolizing an action you’d better take or you’ll find yourself in a situation. As for computer “icons,” the smiley face -- I rest my case.  

I’m a word man, so to me all this is a step backward, but at the same time I recognize the reasons for it. People come here from other places, and English can be a difficult language to master if you didn’t grow up with it. Even if you did, for some of us. I live in Southern California, where everyone drives, so it’s important that everyone be on the same page when, for example, you’re fighting your way home from work on Aviation Boulevard.  If the guy ahead of you is going to have to stop in traffic to think about what “No Left Turn” means, much better to have a sign showing a bent arrow with a line through it.    

I feel real nostalgia for the days when signs said things. Traffic signs were always models of two of the best attributes of good writing: clarity and brevity. “No Stopping.” Wow! Try to top that for effective communication. Especially backed up with a $50 fine. (By the way, what’s the icon for No Stopping?)   

Our freeways are among the few places you’ll still find word signs. That’s surprising at first blush, because you’re not going to get a lot of time to parse the message while going 70 miles an hour. Thinking about the alternative, though, you realize it’s necessity at work: how would you iconize “Long Beach Freeway 2 miles”?  (That illustrates a point I was making above: I’ve seen people slow down almost to a stop to read that one.)   

If your audience is such that you need to communicate through pictures, there are many skilled graphics people waiting to help you. I can recommend some excellent ones. However, if you use brochures or ads or manuals or articles or white papers and similar written things to advance your cause, there are at least as many writers out there, of whom I’m one.     

And if you’re thinking of trying that “picture is worth a thousand words” line on me – my answer is, Draw me the Gettysburg Address.

Next: Let’s deconstruct a job offer