Debabelizing the World

A Pondering by Scott Thomas

Looking back seventeen-thousand years ago when two tribes stumble upon the other for the first time. Without a common language the two, due to their lack of understanding, would likely fight one another before one would retreat. In time, the tribes began to share stories through a common language. A language delivered not by the mouth but by the hand. With the use of a stick and the medium of dirt one might draw a tree, and the other an animal and through this primitive exercise the two would exchange an idea. It seems so simple and trivial considering the complexity of our language today, but the roots of this interaction have had a profound impact in our world. The result is a visual language of symbols, icons that represent every concept in our world. This designed language continues to have grand potential for the people of an ever-shrinking planet. It helps guide, educate, and express. As cultures collide the tongues, words, and even letters of their past divide them and keep them from a common understanding, but through the use of pictorial forms people have been united, shared hope for peace, fairness, and love.

The importance of this visual language started for me with a trip to Vienna in the Spring of 2010. While wandering through exhibitions at The Museum of Applied Arts (MAK), I stumbled upon the work of Gerd Arntz and Otto Neurath. The room was filled with large posters poetically expressing the situation at the beginning of World War II. Arntz, a German, and Neurath, an Austrian, neither of which I share a common language, were able to communicate quickly and effectively to someone of a different land and a different time. Without a single word I could understand their perspective and the grim reality that was shaping before them. The two, Arntz and Neurath, created a system known as Isotype, a symbolic method for representing quantitative information via easily interpretable icons. Using simple forms Isotype could represent complex situations and relationships. Drawings of people grouped together could illustrate population and navy ships could represent the size of a country's fleet. To most people it made large numbers comprehensible, digestible. Contained within the composition was a lucid story. Isotype's images expressed to a multilingual Europe the harsh realities of the second World War. Neurath, a philosopher of science, and sociologist expressed this international language of pictures was not meant to be a stand-alone language. The story may be able to show relationships more clearly but likely lacks the emotional and nuance of such a thorny concept such as war. Limited in what it can communicate concisely the language's purpose was accessibility, efficiency and universality. To Neurath a simple picture in memory was better than a complex image not in memory. Neurath described this simply "Words divide, images unite."

Technology and globalization are connecting us all. Cultures once separated by geography are closer than ever and exchanging more information than once thought possible. During the proliferation of air travel by the masses the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Artists) and the US Department of Transportation collaborated on a standardized set of symbols reducing the confusion and disorder at airports enabling international travelers greater ease in finding their way. Now through the use of the internet we can connect to anyone on any other continent, instantly. This access has given raise to a langua franca, unparalleled in human history. The number of multilingual humans has outpaced the number of monolingual. This need to morph and learn many languages reveals the limitation of our traditional tongues of nostalgia and our primitive desire to adapt. Today, 80 years after the work of Neurath and Artnz, we see an ever increasing use of the pictoral language in the user experience of our digital age. Peer into any device and try to interact without touching the pictorial language, you'll probably not get very far. The devices and software we use are increasingly designed for a global population, a world wide audience, and to reduce confusion the use of symbols and icons advice us where to click, tap, and touch.

The visual language's sole purpose is not to simply sign post in order for us to find our way, it is also meant to educate, to share information. Isotype was developed in part to help educate, by creating learning materials that included visual diagrams as well as written words. By adding visual representations individuals could digest information more quickly and effectively. It also allowed the transmission of information to a greater number of people that were not able to read or share a common language. Reading and writing has always been a means for the privileged but the visual language breaks down the barrier of entry, making the complex more accessible by increasing the numbers of individuals able to participate. This language is having a greater effect than words.

Though the language of icons can represent a great number of concepts and allow us to connect, guide, and learn, it still has not been ordered, organized or shared. The verbal language has the dictionary but our visual language has had no single source of order. This was the motivation of The Noun Project (, whose mission it is to collect, share and enhance the World's visual language. Through the use of technology and the global community the project aims to harness a language that is constantly evolving. Users not only use the symbols to communicate but also contribute to the design of the language and through their use create an understanding of which symbol may best communicate a particular idea in different parts of the world. Through the use of technology the project can bring reality help unite our global village and realize Neurath and others before him who dreamed of a "debabelized" world.