Image as Language
When you look at an image your mind creates an already established connection to that subject, for example if you are asked to draw a house without thinking you probably drew a box with a roof, possibly some windows and chimney, but I would assume you didn’t instantly think of a tree house or an igloo, tent, or wooden shelter. (I should credit my MA Tutor Clinton Cahill here for this example.) We establish connections that are already made with an archetype of the subject in question. Big brands use this to their advantage, often choosing very simple eye-catching logos that produce a connection to the name of the brand. Apple is a good example as this works both ways, when you see the word apple in their classic Myriad Apple font we would be automatically thinking of their apple logo, the same applies to many companies such as Microsoft, Amazon and Google each using either colour or simple imagery to make us automatically associate with the brand. This technique gives respect to the viewer, an understanding that the viewer isn’t stupid and will recognise the branding instantly and through association know the logo, it also establishes a tone for a brand, for example Lloyds Bank having a green tint to all of their promotion imagery and adverts coupled with the famous black horse creates both tone and association almost instantly for them as a brand, Chip Kidd gives a good example during one of his TED Talks where he speaks about a teacher once showing him two things, a picture of an apple, and the word apple wrote below, the teacher covers the picture and says, “You either show this, or you show this [covering the word this time] – But you don’t show this [Both uncovered].” The idea of showing one thing over its description is something major companies use as a means to establish their brand identity and association to the brand through imagery.
Moving away from commercial aspects of design and looking at how we understand imagery as a language within editorial layouts or images within information, the use of imagery becomes more complex than just association. Cultures across the world are so complex that you cannot use one formula to distribute the same messages with the same intentions and then expect the same results. Ruben Pater in his book ‘The Politics of Design’ talks on this topic of cultural differences.
“Categorising them into regions, countries, races, or religions only affirms stereotypes and prevents a broader understanding. At the same time, societies are becoming more and more culturally diverse, and designers can longer assume that their audience shares the same visual language and values.”
When dealing with image and text we should ensure that they work together to create the intended message. This applies to all types of media and the way we view it, but most importantly where it will be viewed, understanding the culture and the appropriate response to societies that will already have standing archetypes to certain elements of imagery including colour.
One example of this is during the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, known as the Umbrella Revolution. Yellow ribbons and umbrellas were used during the protests as means of defiance against the color of communism [red] and represented freedom, unlike in western culture where the color red is often used as a sign of protest it has a very different association within Hong Kong and so the use of the color becomes and incredibly important role within such political movements. It’s the importance of visual communication and the understanding of culture and place that should share the same values and principles of the verbal and written.
“Visual communication across cultures deal with visual literacy, the ability to read and understand images. Visual literacy, like verbal literacy, needs to be learned. It is influenced by our own experiences, by how many images we have seen, but most all by our cultural background. Each culture reads images in very different ways. Differences in visual literacy can lead to misunderstandings in communication. This can happen between cultures that are thousands of kilometers apart, but also between two neighbors in the same street.”
The Importance of Language & Social Behaviour
Language is the most important tool over every other living animal we have. It pervades social life and is the vehicle for which we connect, share and transmit the contents of our mind. Language is at the very core of our social behaviour and a cause to our social psychology, it affects our attitudes and social perception. Language is part of our personal identity, contributing to our social interactions, intergroup bias and stereotyping, attribution and more. The very way in which I write about this topic will affect the way you, the reader, interpret this text. In much the same way that language pervades social life, the elements of social life are intrinsic to way language is used. Just as design uses language, design itself is also intrinsic to way language is used.
Robert M. Krauss and Chi-Yue Chiu from Columbia University and The University of Hang-Kong have written extensively on the topic of ‘Language and Social Behavior’. The sections following are a collection of quotes from their texts on language that I feel are relevant to the importance of language. Speaking of how language is used and how the act of speaking can regard different actions, interpersonal communication, coverbal behaviors, social perception, social identity and cultural cognition. To start I would like to talk about a section that discusses the how we use language and its construction to have different meanings. Throughout this text I will link back to its uses in design. For example, in this section it is important to remember how we use language and keep in mind that the very construction of language itself will represent different meanings. The example in this section looks at the interrogative nature of asking questions within the English language, for design it should be important to reference back to the examples below when looking over the content featured in design.
At another level of analysis, acts of speaking can be regarded as actions intended to accomplish a specific purpose by verbal means. Looked at this way, utterances can be thought of as speech acts that can be identified in terms of their intended purposes—assertions, questions, requests, etc. (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969, 1985). At first glance it might seem that the type of act an utterance represents will be given by its grammatical sentence type, but languages are not constructed in so simple a fashion. English, for example, has an interrogative mode for asking questions, an imperative for issuing commands, a declarative for making assertions, and so on. However, the grammatical form does not determine the speech act an utterance represents. “Can you tell me the time?” (as typically used) and “Do you know how to drive a car with a stick- shift?” are both in the interrogative mode, but they constitute quite different speech acts. “Yes” might be an adequate response to the latter, but the former is intended to be understood as a request rather than a question, and “Yes” would be a defective answer. Considerations of this sort require a distinction be drawn between the semantic or literal meaning of an utterance and its intended meaning. Acts of speaking typically are imbedded in a discourse made up of a coherently related sequence of such acts. Conversation and narratives are two types of discourse, and each has a formal structure that constrains participants’ acts of speaking.
Language with design could be seen as part of a ‘Coverbal Behavior’, meaning that the very way in which you read text is affected by the way in which you are presented it, that the language changes based on the means of production and design. In this example, gestures such as a nod of the head, raising of eye brows and emotion are referenced as part of this ‘Coverbal Behavior’, design, as part of this behavior,
should focus on the intentions it has toward the viewer, one could say that you should focus on the content and its meanings, or, based on the publication, the message that the company in question wants to deliver. Of course, we see this every day, newspapers and magazines show case content based on both the message of the publication or that of the content, however I would argue that publications and independent publications, that fall within my earlier example of ‘Hyper-Publishing’, do little to regard the language used within their designs to accurately understand audience and content alike. ‘Co-verbal Behaviours’ such as gaze, gesture and facial expression that normally accompany speech, and have relevance to it, should in fact be understood by designers and how to use them: gaze – where to look and what your viewer is drawn to, gesture – the design as a gesture, interaction with the sitter, and facial expression – how can the designer or art director spark emotion through imagery, design and production.
As they speak, people often gesture, nod their heads, change their postures and facial expressions, and redirect the focus of their gaze. Although these behaviours are not linguistic by a strict definition of that term, their close coordination with the speech they accompany suggests that they are relevant to an account of language use. Of course, each of these behaviours also can occur apart from the context of speech. DePaulo and Friedman (this volume) provide a broad review of research on the role of “nonverbal behaviours” in communication. This section will consider gaze, gesture and facial expression as co-verble behaviours—behaviours that normally accompany speech, and are believed to have relevance to it. It also will touch on some of the nonverbal information that is conveyed in speech by “tone of voice.”
Language and the Activation of Culturally Shared Ideas
In the course of the evolution of the mind, according to Donald (1993), homo sapiens passed through three cognitive transitions: the development of mimetic skills, the evolution of language, and the invention of external memory devices. Each development created a new way of representing reality and made possible a new form of culture. Bruner (1990) suggests that “The symbolic systems that individuals used in constructing meaning are systems that were already in place, already ‘there,’ deeply entrenced in culture and language. They constituted a very special kind of communal tool kit whose tools, onces used, made the user a reflection of the community” (p. 11). Both Donald’s and Bruner’s accounts underscore the close relation of language use, shared meaning representation and culture. However, few social psychologists have pursued the impact of language use on culturally shared cognition (see Markus, Kitayama & Heiman,1996).
Cultural psychologists (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Markus et al., 1996; Shweder & Sullivan, 1990) have focused on culture as a shared meaning system developed by members of a collective to represent the world, create cultural artifacts, orient themselves and others to features of the environment, and evoke certain feelings. A cultural meaning system consists of a large, diversified pool of shared ideas, values, beliefs and causal knowledge, coherently organized in a network of interrelations (D’Andrade, 1984), that constrain the meanings people construct and the inferences they draw (e.g., J. Miller, 1984; Morris & Peng, 1994). If a cultural meaning system is an organized network of interrelated cognitive elements, exposure to relevant cues should activate a subset of components in the system and spread throughout the network, ultimately activating some culturally patterned cognitions. Hong, Chiu and Kung (in press) tested this idea by exposing Westernized Hong Kong Chinese undergraduates either to images common in Chinese cultures (e.g., a dragon, traditional musical instruments) or to neutral perspective drawings. Although Chinese undergraduates typically make fewer internal attributions to social behavior than their American counterparts (Morris & Peng, 1994), exposing subjects to symbols of Chinese culture effectively activated their Chinese cultural meaning systems, increasing the extent of internal attributions and strengthening their endorsement of traditional Chinese values.
Inferring Social Categories from Speech
Although George Bernard Shaw was not the first to observe that the words we use (and the way we articulate them) mark the social categories to which we belong, his play Pygmalion popularised public awareness of how the way we speak is related to the person we are perceived to be. His fictional phonetician Henry Higgins could reconstruct a speaker’s personal history from a mere snippet of speech. However, Shaw was less interested in Higgins’s esoteric talent than in the way speech defines another’s social categories for the average, untutored person. The social significance of this fact for Liza Doolittle was far reaching. As Higgins said:
You see this creature with her kerbstone English: The English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party. I could even get her a job as a lady’s maid or shop assistant, which requires better English (Shaw, 1951, p. 28).
Quite independently of what we say, our speech tells others a great deal about us: our age, gender, geographic origin, socioeconomic status, and even (albeit imperfectly) our size. Anatomical and physiological changes that occur in the course of development are reflected in acoustic properties that make it quite easy to distinguish a toddler’s voice from that of an adolescent, or a young adult from a senior citizen (Kent & Burkard, 1981) . Vocal cues to gender are partly phonetic, a consequence of differences in male and female vocal tracts, and partly matters of social norms: in some settings women and men are expected to employ different speech styles reflected in differences in syntax, pronunciation and vocabulary. (See Ladefoged (1967) and Laver (1980) for a description of the mechanisms responsible for voice quality.)
Perhaps the most important index of identity in speech is dialect. Dialect is reflected at all levels of linguistic organization. Minor variations are observed in syntax (compare “Ask him does he want a cold drink,” heard in the Southern U.S. with “Ask him if he wants…” heard most other places) and lexicon (what is called a “bag” in the Eastern U.S. often is called a “sack” in the Midwest, and vice-versa). But the most significant variation occurs at the phonological level, and is reflected in what is referred to as accent. As Williams observes Perhaps more than any other characteristic, our accent assigns us to a geographical area, to a social class in that area. It tells a listener whether we are being formal or informal, casual or intimate. We judge and are judged by how we pronounce our words (J. Williams, 1975, p. 301).
Regional dialects, which reflect speakers’ geographic backgrounds, often are thought to be degenerate variants of a standard version of a language, but to linguists all versions of a language are dialects, although some may be more prestigious or acceptable in certain contexts than others. Indeed, the distinction between a dialect and a language can’t be specified with any precision. There are many cases of different “languages” that are mutually intelligible to virtually all speakers (e.g., Spanish and Portuguese), while, on the other hand, speakers of two “dialects” of the same language (e.g., Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese) may have great difficulty understanding one another. For such reasons, many linguists contend that the distinction between language and dialect is political rather than linguistic, and a not-entirely-facetious definition of a language is “a dialect with an army.” Although regional dialects point to a person’s geographical origins, regional stereotypes of a region’s inhabitants are not uncommon (“Scots are penurious,” “New Yorkers are rude,” “Southerners are lazy”), and can affect the evaluations of speakers whose dialects identify them as coming from a particular region.
Apart from gender, perhaps the most important dimension of social identity that one’s speech discloses is social class. Class variation in language use occurs in most societies (Guy, 1988) , and it is surprising how discerningly listeners can utilize such variations to identify a speaker’s socioeconomic status. Naive subjects’ judgments of SES, based on hearing speakers read a brief standard passage, are highly correlated with measured SES, and even so minimal a speech sample as counting from 1-10 yields reasonably accurate judgments (D. S. Ellis, 1967) . Generally speaking, lower-class speakers are judged less favorably than middle-class speakers (Smedley & Bayton, 1978; Triandis & Triandis, 1960) , and middle-class judges perceive themselves to be more similar to middle-class speakers than to lower class speakers (Dienstbier, 1972). The biassing effects of ethnic accents on evaluations (e.g., Spanish-English in the U.S., French-English in Canada, Welsh-English in the U.K.) may be mediated by assumptions listeners make about the speaker’s social class (Lambert, Hodgson, Gardner, & Fillenbaum, 1960; Ryan & Sebastian, 1980). Giles and Powsland (1975 review the evidence for several languages and cultures.
It seems obvious that the way a person speaks will mark that person’s identity for others. What may be less obvious is that language also plays an important role in defining the speaker’s identity for him- or herself. Social psychological research on language and social identity has focused on three issues: (1) The role of language as a marker of social identity, (2) The role of language in maintaining social identities, and (3) Listeners’ evaluative reactions to information about the speaker’s social identity conveyed in speech.
Language as a Marker of Social Identity
In a recent TIME/CNN poll, 65% of 1000 American respondents supported legislation to make English the “official language” of the U.S. The poll’s results reflect increasing support over the last decade for such public measures as the exclusive use of English in classroom (Hornblower, 1995; see also Padilla et al., 1991 for a discussion from a psychological perspective) and for laws requiring that commercial signs be in English. In no small part, the English-only movement is motivated by the assumption that widespread use of languages other than English in the U.S. promotes ethnic divisiveness. This view was explicitly cited by Robert Dole as justification for his support of English-only measures in his Presidential campaign. “We must,” Dole said, “stop the practice of multilingual education as a means of instilling ethnic pride or as a therapy for low self-esteem” (Hornblower, 1995).
Although the advisability of establishing an official language is a complicated matter with political, sociological and economic ramifications that go beyond the scope of this chapter, the debate raises several interesting questions that social psychologists have addressed. They include: Does speaking a “nonofficial” language reduce one’s identification with the mainstream culture, and how important a role does language play in establishing people’s identities?
Some writers have been criticial of the view that social identity is supported by language, claiming that linguistic identification is not necessary for ethnic identification, and that acculturation inevitably leads to language shifts. For example, J. Edwards (1992) contends that many ethnic groups manage to maintain continuing solidarity long after they have lost the ability to speak their original group language.
When an ethnic minority comes into contact with the dominant group, language shift or a decline in the ethnic group language tends to be accompanied by a failure to teach the native language to the younger generations, perhaps reflecting a decision to replace the group language with one that is perceived to be more prestigious and socially functional. Language shift typically is more rapid in ethnically diverse urban environments than in rural areas that afford less opportunity for contact with users of the dominant language. Finally, bilingualism often is a temporary stage in the process of language
shift that is replaced with dominant-language monolingualism in the course of a generation or two. Such observations suggest that language shift may be driven by pragmatic economic and social status concerns rather than by changes in social identification.
Edwards’ argument, and others like it, conceive of acculturation as a unidimensional process: ethnic group members either retain their ethnic identity and reject the majority culture (i.e., espouse separation), or give up their ethnic identity in order to attain positive relations with the majority culture (i.e., espouse assimilation). Others have taken a multidimensional view of the acculturation process: Ethnic group members’ decisions to retain or reject their ethnic identity is independent of their decision to maintain or not maintain positive relationships with the dominant group (Berry, 1980). Thus it is possible for ethnic group members both to have positive relations with the majority culture and to retain their ethnic language and identities.
There is some evidence that acculturation does not inevitably result in language shifts. A large-scale survey of English-dominant Americans of Mexican ancestry revealed that those who had adapted to the mainstream American culture by developing a strong family identity or a Chicano Raza identity were committed to transmitting Mexican traditions to their children (Gurin, Hurtado, & Peng, 1994; Hurtado, Gurin, & Peng, 1994). They also tended to assert the importance of speaking Spanish and to approve bilingualism. A survey of Canadians of Portuguese descent found that those who had a greater tendency to assimilate were less proficient in Portuguese; however, respondents who showed a desire to retain their ethnicity and to attain positive relations with the mainstream culture were more proficient in Portuguese (Lanca, Alksins, Roese & Gardner, 1994). This evidence suggests that ethnic identification is usually accompanied by linguistic identification, and that acculturation may not lead to erosion of linguistic identification. Consistent with this view, sociolinguistic research has documented the proposition that most social categories are marked by distinctive speech and nonverbal styles (see Giles, 1979; Helfrich, 1979; Robinson, 1979; P. Smith, 1979). Even ethnic groups that have lost their original group language may retain a distinctive ethnic speech style, and such speech styles can be important symbols of group identity (Giles, Bourhis, & Taylor, 1977).