Icons – The Visual Metaphors Of Our Culture

Ever wondered what could be the primary cause of our childhood fascination with cartoons? I did. Tons of times in fact. With little success very often.  Thankfully for me Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics gives a clear and a straightforward explanation for that.

Understanding Comics Pg 36

(Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, Pg 36)

Essentially, he posits,  the mental picture that we we have of ourselves is simple and basic . Therefore, we are able to project ourselves into the ‘simple character’ but not the ‘complex one’.

The obvious lesson here that is applicable to advertising could be – if you want your audience to feel like they are the main character, make sure the character isn’t overly elaborate and detailed.

The classic iPod ads of 2001  have smartly taken this theory a step further by featuring just a set of male and female silhouettes.

iPod

(Image Source)

This abstraction of pictures from reality to icons is thus a powerful mode of expression that comics (and comic artists) have deliberately and meaningfully perfected over the years.  For, after all, (visually) quoting Scott..

Understanding Comics Pg 59

(Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, Pg 59)

“There is no life in an icon except that which you give to it.”

While this insight forms the cornerstone of what constitutes the vocabulary of comics, it lends a very powerful commentary  that is relevant for our practical lives too. Let me explain.

Just like we are said to be exposed to thousands of marketing/ brand impressions per day, I’d wager that we are also exposed to as many (if not more) iconic impressions each day. While a brand’s logo – by definition – could also be called as an ‘icon’, my focus here is more on icons that constitute the typical signage/symbols that we are used to seeing all around us each day – e.g.,  traffic signage, safety signage, industrial signage, traveler signage etc.

dot_pictograms_full

(DOT Pictograms)

Since these signage icons have been around for years, most of us grow up intuitively accepting them as part of our unspoken language. Thereby they practically end up becoming the visual metaphors of our culture.

Armed with this insight – The Accessible Icon Project was born with a goal to  show a more humanized depiction of the differently abled in the International Symbol of Access.

Symbol of Access

I’ll let you read a comprehensive account of the project here, but the highlight of this guerrilla art project was that it succeeded in reorienting the visual focus of the symbol from the chair to the person, while replacing the rigid, static representation with something more dynamic and active.

Result: The idea has been gaining tremendous momentum around globally as we speak, with NYC becoming one of the first cities in the world to formalize and adopt this new symbol with many disability organizations around the world vehemently following suit.

Metaphors are said to have the power of influencing our ideas, challenging assumptions and creating new world views. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, the power of a visual metaphor like this new ‘access icon’ above can be said to be amplified a thousand fold in shaping our collective biases, informing our cultural opinions and influencing our societal attitudes as humanity.

That’s when things get interesting. Symbolically and literally.

Blood In The Gutter – On Smart Narratives

Cleverly disguised as an easy to read comic book, Understanding Comics is a masterpiece from Scott McCloud on what makes comics as a medium – tik. Called as “…one of the most insightful books about designing graphic user interfaces ever written..” by Andy Hertzfeld, the co-creator of the Mac, Understanding Comics bares fascinating insights on time, space, art and the cosmos. A must read for anyone with a curious mind and a willingness to have some fun along the way. Go get yourself a copy if you haven’t yet and it might as well turn out to the best gift you’d have given yourself in a long time.

Blood In The Gutter is the name of my favorite chapter from the book where Scott explains what constitutes the magic and the mystery of comics through a concept called ‘Closure’. Following are some panels from the chapter that explain this concept in lucid detail:

Blog UC 1

Blog UC 2

Blog UC 3

(Scott McCloud (1993), “Understanding Comics”, p. 66, 68, 63)

It is closure that makes Comics an immersive medium that they are. For e.g., unlike in say radio and film, the audience for comics are compelled to participate more because they are required to perceive the gaps between panels and fill in the missing content themselves. No wonder then, artists from different media (Literature, Photography, Film etc) have experimented and adopted the techniques of ‘closure’ as a compelling narrative style in their own works. Three examples where this technique of closure has been adopted in 3 different media: literature, photography and film below:

Closure in Literature: One Day

One Day is a novel by David Nicholls published in 2009. While it is essentially a ‘When Harry Met Sally‘ kind of genre, the unique feature of the book is its narrative. Each chapter covers the lives of the protagonists on exactly the same day (15 July) every year for twenty years.

One Day Movie_book

This literary technique of ‘closure’ as adopted by David Nicholls in One Day had its expected results with the book being praised as a ‘persuasive’, ‘ fast’, ‘absorbing’ and ‘smart’ and went on to be named 2010 Galaxy Book of the Year. Nicholls adapted his book into a screenplay; the feature film, also titled One Day, was released in August 2011. 

As with comics, closure –  when executed well in any media – facilitates smooth and seamless transitions in time and space and establishes a tightly symbiotic relationship between the reader’s imagination and the narrative.

Closure in Photography: The Whale Hunt

The Whale Hunt is a story telling experiment by Jonathan Harris who spent nine days living with a family of Inupiat Eskimos in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost settlement in the United States. He documented their traditional whale hunt with a plodding sequence of 3,214 photographs, taken at five-minute intervals for seven days, and at even higher frequencies in moments of high adrenaline.  He then developed a framework for experiencing this story, allowing the viewer to rearrange the photographic elements of the story to extract multiple sub-stories focused around different people, places, topics, and other variables. (Source)

Go to the WhaleHunt page and experience the story unfold along different dimensions and see the cadence of closure engage your curiosity, senses and imagination.

The Whale Hunt

Closure in Film: I Love Your Work

Using a similar narrative style as used in The Whale Hunt, Harris now steps into a bold new territory by holding the spotlight on the world of lesbian porn.

Called as I Love Your Work, the project in Harris’ words “is an interactive documentary about the realities of those who make fantasies.It is a raw and intimate portrait of the everyday lives of nine young women who make lesbian porn.It consists of 2,202 10-second video clips, taken at five-minute intervals over 10 consecutive days.There is an interactive environment for exploring this material (around six hours of footage).”

What’s revealed through this tapestry of video clips separated by 5 min time intervals is an intimate portrait of a community opening up about topics like sex, gender politics, and their daily grind in a way that’s downright real and some times hard hitting.

I Love Your Work

Read this Fast Company article for a more detailed account of the project.

This powerful concept of closure (as it pans out in comics or in experiments like the ones shown above) seems to suggest one thing for certain. In order to engage, captivate and involve our minds and senses, the narrative of a story need not be continuous or seamless.

In fact what could work better in capturing and sustaining our attention spans can just be fragments of the story that are disjointed enough to let our imagination do the ‘connecting-the-dots’ drill and joint enough to let us feel that we are smart indeed!

Speak about the power of ‘smart narratives’.

Our perception of ‘reality’ is an act of faith, based on mere fragments.

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (1993)