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  • Writer's picture Paper Plane Consulting


We all speak at least one other language. What's more, we've been learning it all our lives and speaking it fluently every day, despite the fact that no one taught us. The language of iconography – simple pictures representing complex ideas, instructions, or information – is all around us and deep within us. Without icons, driving would be a nightmare, shopping would take even longer, and using a cell phone? Impossible. To that end, might it be argued that though it is our second language, it is gradually becoming our first? Written language is ideal when we need to understand a complex idea or problem or read a story, but when we need to make fast decisions, understand something instantly, or avoid danger, the icon's visual language is way ahead. This is because our brain is wired to receive information visually. Long before we humans learned to speak (let alone write), our brains received visual cues. In those days, as far as our minds were concerned, the whole of the natural world was a vast series of icons: visual cues to helps us do anything and everything – from finding food or shelter to avoiding a predator or crossing a river. Although life is a little less primitive today, the way our brains work is much the same as it was, and iconography maximizes this perfectly. The three elements of an icon – color, shape, and image – give the brain all the information it needs, providing a direct fast-track route to allow for quick decision making and a deeper understanding of data being received. So, is the written word disappearing under the inevitable march of the icon in our modern world? Fortunately, this looks unlikely, but words certainly do have competition. While icons are very good at what they do, their reach is limited and cannot (not yet anyway!) compete with a poem or prose to convey, for example, emotion or narrative. Nevertheless, icons have revolutionized our lives and are undoubtedly here to stay, like tiny directional beacons. And without them where we would be? Probably stuck in traffic wearing pants that don't fit.

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