The power of design: basic elements of graphical communication

In a recent presentation, research and senior TED fellow Genevieve von Petzinger showed 32 ancient graphical symbols that she found repeated in cave paintings and hieroglyphics arounds the world. This consistent set of symbols appeared 30,000 – 40,000 years ago and remained in use for thousands of years. It’s possible that this is the precursor to writing.

Ancient Graphical Communication

We don’t know what these symbols meant to their creators. The hand images seem literal, as does the serpent-like figure. It’s hard to imagine that what looks heart-shaped to us carried the same connotations millennia ago.

But, it’s clear that this symbols meant something to those who created them. It couldn’t have been a private meaning either, or else it would have died out with the keepers of the private meaning. The symbols had social meaning. This is a testament to our social nature, and to our ability and need to communicate graphically.

This TED talk also reminded me of something I learned once during a webinar for work: there’s a graphical alphabet and something of a grammar, too. (If I could remember or find the webinar or the speaker, I’d totally share it with you. Maybe one of you could find this.)

For vowels, think of the progression of dot, line, arc, spiral, loop, circle, and ellipse:

Graphic Alphabet 01

For consonants, think of the geometric shapes: angle, triangle, rectangle, pentagon, hexagon, etc, up to as many sides as you want:

Graphic Alphabet 02

For grammar, there are three ways to group graphics to have meaning:

  • placed along a value line
  • organized into sets that may or may not overlap
  • in relationship or network with each other

These arrangements can be meant to convey practical or how-to information, logical or intellectual information, or emotional content.

How can you use this today? Incorporate these symbols and their grammar into your designs. It’s not always appropriate for designs to impart an ancient style or feeling, but many of these forms are useful today.

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