The Universal Language: Visual Communication

06.22.16   Z Gevorkian

Language makes us human, whether this communication manifests in a well-written book or a movie with a great ending. But did you know that human beings started communicating with visuals first, and not words?

Cave men would communicate their hunt for animals with paintings in caves. These paintings are timeless reminders of our need to connect through communication. And that is what happens when you hit an icon or symbol on a device. You are connecting through visual communication. There are times when a visual icon or symbol is more meaningful than a word, sentence, or instructions. This is one reason why we are seeing so many symbols and icons on websites, mobile devices, etc. They are simpler, more concise methods of connecting a user to a function, path, instruction, or piece of information The interesting part is that the combination of icons and visuals can communicate something completely different. It is a language on its own. One additional stroke, one extra mark – or even a bad choice of colors – can change the communication of that piece forever.

Think of it this way: Imagine using a symbol of a knife, or hammer to replace a heart in a Valentine’s Day card. Or what if we chose the color black to replace the soft pink or passionate red we typically use. It changes the meaning. Symbols, colors, visual cues, all have meanings that are accepted across cultures and nations. These are not coincidences. Over time, symbols and colors have made their way into our understanding of the world. It is that understanding of our world that we are able to gauge the meanings of these symbols and icons. And sometimes, over time, a symbol can mean something completely different. This is why visual communication is an art form that requires attention and a sense of awareness that is connected to the now.

Below we find a simple, rudimentary form of visual communication.

First we have a circle. Now add a crown to it and you just changed that iconography, the symbolism of that circle into a tomato. Remove the crown, add two more circles within that circle and you get a target. This may seem oversimplified, but that is exactly the magic behind it. Visual communication is about distilling information. It is those simple elements that can change the definitions of visual communication pieces entirely.

Over a decade ago the illustration below would have meant something different than it does today. Today it carries with it a different meaning, and with it a lot of psychological and emotional information

Below that we have a hamburger menu. When designing

with Razorfish, we were met with discomfort when implementing the hamburger menu on the website. “The hamburger menu was originally designed for mobile and tablets only”is what we were met with.

Now, even uses it on their desktop site (and don't worry, it made it into too. 


Again, we see visual communication transitioning from specialized use to universal use. Therein lies the need to stay up to date with what users are accustomed to and to be aware of whether trends can overlap, or not.

This is why there is now a specialized position for such a task. they are called user experience / user interface designers. Their specialty is to create a visual system that is easy for users to navigate through. Using icons, visual symbols can represent a task or an action. They can also just be informational, and help guide a user intuitively down that path, to what he or she is looking for, and back out again. You know what most people say about the iPhone? “My kid can use it.”

And they're right. It’s so intuitive that even a child that can’t read can use it. That is the purpose of visual communication. That is why sometimes you can understand and enjoy a commercial from Germany even though you don’t speak German, or know when to stop when you are in Mexico, even though your destination is foreign to you. And it is why your child can use your iPhone. An alphabet constricts you to a region, whereas visual communication doesn’t.