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Picked up this book the other day, “This means this, this means that: A user’s guide to Semiotics” because I liked the format. With every new concept, the author introduces a work of art or some kind of visual example of the idea he is trying convey. Unfortunately the book is mostly fluff, but it is a really nice format for a text on this subject. Yeah- mostly fluff, but there was one thing that got me thinking:

Language is an arbitrary signifier of an event/instance. If you are trying to communicate the idea of a dog, the four-legged furry man’s-best-friend type, to say or write the word d-o-g is completely arbitrary. The three letters that were assigned to represent “dog” are based on absolutely nothing. It could be p-u-m-p-k-i-n. Or s-k-y. Doesn’t even matter.

On the other hand, a small drawing or other representation of a dog immediately brings to mind the correct creature. Images are not arbitrary, they are physical reflections of a thing.

I’ve also spent some time with Nigel Holmes’s book “Wordless Diagrams” lately. Such a cool book. Every page is another illustration of an activity, some of which are really complex, and none of which include any language (duh, hence the title). Check out his website too for some awesome information graphics/animations.

I’ll go off about the importance of visual communication in contemporary culture in detail in other future posts, theres a lot to say about it. The thing that both of these books really get me stirred up about relates to signage in public libraries. One of the great challenges public libraries face is how to serve all of the different foreign language populations within their service area. It is pretty difficult for people to find their way around a building if they cannot make sense of the directional signs.

Icon signage should be used as much as possible in the public sphere. Look at airports. Look at transit systems (maybe not here in NYC since ours is a bit of a nightmare). If the library is to function as a 3rd space in its community, it needs to be a space that is easily interpreted and navigable for people of all ages from all different backgrounds. Visual signage should replace cryptic dewey decimal numbers on the end of shelves as well as linguistic phrases like “science fiction” or “pets” or “restroom” (I think restrooms are pretty well covered though).

I believe a lot of public libraries have already been doing this. More should. I’m going to try to start compiling good examples and posting them here.

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