I’ve recently seen an interesting video on visual representation from the folks over at interactiondesign.org – presented by Rikke Friis Dam and Alan Blackwell:

In the video, Alan and Rikke look at several pieces of fine art collected by Jim Ede (first curator of Modern art at the Tate) I think it reveals a couple of interesting points – that might be relevant to anyone making or commissioning symbols or illustrations to assist in communication.

Firstly, it’s evident that the techniques of fine artists are very useful sources of reference for anyone looking to visually communicate a concept. Many painters, sculptors and printers take it upon themselves to experiment with and find new ways of suggesting the shape and form of different real-world objects using a huge variety of techniques. I think my favourite example in the video is the sketch by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska:

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska sketch of bird swallowing fish

A simple pencil sketch by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska sketch, illustrating the scene with only a few lines

This simple sketch, with very strong and assured lines, shows a violent natural scene he had witnessed – a bird devouring a fish. In the video, Alan makes the point that a photograph would be a more accurate representation – but this sketch shows a particular idea of the scene, without the distractions of the background. When you want to represent something visually, it might be useful to think of the different ways of representing it – should you use a symbol, an illustration, a photograph, a diagram? The answer may depend on the importance of context – do you need to show something happening in a particular setting, or is it better to have an abstract visual reprsentation? Also, it might depend on size / resolution / likely context of use. The simpler the image, the easier it is to see it in unfavourable conditions.

The other useful point made by the video is that of visual representation conventions. The other sketch of this same scene uses cross-hatching to suggest shading. Alan makes the point that we can understand this convention because of the history of copperplate etching – a technique which produces either white or black marks, and nothing in-between. Thus, to suggest shades of grey, lines of different density were used. Similar (but more complex) techniques are used in everyday laser printers to produce the “illusion” of shades of grey – because our eyes can’t easily detect the fine patterning used. Also in the video, the point is made that the bird’s foot in the Gaudier-Brzeska sculpture of this scene does not look exactly like any real bird’s foot – it is a symbol of a foot. When designing or commissioning visual representation work, keep in mind the intended audience. Will they understand the visual conventions used? The easiest way of finding out is often to show a few people and find out…