Where do you live? Here's any easy test to find out if you are either from Melbourne or are a visitor with local knowledge: does 'Jeff's Shed' mean anything to you? No? Then I know that you aren't a local. I can now also guess that the picture you conjure in your mind is not of a very large exhibition hall on the bank of a river with a tall ship moored out the front - because that is what Jeff's Shed in Melbourne looks like.
The words you use make a difference to the world you see because they are part of the context that frames the data you take in. We all frame the things we are exposed to in the context of our own understanding. It is very difficult to 'walk a mile in another man's shoes' unless he walks through the same world we live in.
It's not much of a stretch then to imagine how differently someone from an entirely different culture or language group might see the world because they are framing their data inputs using their own context.
Designing for an audience with local knowledge will result in different visuals to those required for visitors. Here in Victoria we have a road sign designed for visitors to remind them that they need to drive on the left side of the road.
Visitors from countries where the cars use the opposite side of the road can find themselves being the only car driving on a road with none of the context
they require to know which side to be on. Locals don't need to be told which side of the road to drive on because they have learnt to cross roads when
young and that lesson includes knowing which side of the road the cars will be on - data and context embedded from an early age.
Without context, data is just meaningless drivel. Context is vital when converting data into information because it provides clues as to how to understand the data. Picking the right contextual elements for data requires the designer to understand the audience and to know what visual languages are already familiar.
Visual languages will vary along with the spoken language of different audience groups. The way that language has developed to describe things will also have an affect on the way different language groups 'see' or perceive the same object. Here is an excerpt from an article in Fast Company
in English we call the device that records incoming telephone messages 'answering machine' (a genderless mechanical device). In Hebrew the term used is 'electronic secretary' (a humanized feminine electronic gadget). From these different terms we may infer that the visual expressions of that telephone device in these two languages may differ. The English-speaking design student may envision an electronic gadget, maybe with a reference to the telephone. The Hebrew speaking design student may envision a product with feminine features with an earphone-microphone device or a shorthand writing pad.
I have trouble recognising people when they are out of context ie. in a different physical environment. It is more than not being able to bring to mind the name of someone I didn't expect to see, it is often the case that it takes me a while to realise that I know them at all. For me, context is providing the visual clues to identification.
Push that a little bit sideways and it is easy to understand that by providing website users with familiar navigation elements we enable them to use an unfamiliar website with ease. Or, that public transport signage that displays colour coding consistently across different modes of transport: orange for buses, blue for suburban trains etc. will make it easier for visitors to become familiar with the visual language quickly.
Consistency is the key - the currently fashionable 'disruption' is definitely the least helpful approach to take if you want to achieve understanding. Sameness becomes the facilitator of understanding when data needs to be moved from information to understanding.
The last word goes to Federico Fellini who said: A different language is a different vision of life.
More on visual languages
- We design schematics. What do you do?