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Accidental Meaning In Graphic Design

Drew Skau

published on September 18, 2014 in Design

Spoken and written language are incredible tools for humanity. They let us efficiently communicate concepts to each other, coordinate activities, and generally work together more effectively. But an important part of keeping language effective is having standards that everyone recognizes. Dictionaries give us a vocabulary to work from and they standardize the meanings and spellings of words. Grammar books set up the rules of our language to help us avoid unintentional ambiguity and keep misunderstandings from happening.

Visual Language Standards

In the same way, dictionaries and grammar rules have been set up for verbal language, visual language also has standards. Arguably, the two most important of these for charts commonly seen in graphic design are the Semiology of Graphics, and the ISOTYPE standard.

Jacques Bertin’s Semiology of Graphics sets up a series of visual techniques that can be used to communicate information. The book focuses on graphics on maps, but also includes techniques for many common chart types.

The ISOTYPE standard provides a sort of iconic language, and guidelines for how to use those icons to represent quantitative information. ISOTYPE does set up rules for using icons on maps and to represent data, however it does not address common chart types.

Visual Typos

There are plenty of people writing things that unknowingly don’t follow grammar rules, or even accidentally make up words and spell things incorrectly. We have built tools like spellcheck or grammar checkers to help avoid some of the more basic infractions. There are still many phrases that can have multiple meanings, and for these, automated tools aren’t enough. A good copy editor can go a long way toward spotting these dual meanings and removing them if they cause problems.

Visual languages don’t have automated checking systems yet, so the graphic design field is left to fend for itself. Designers should be heavily proof-viewing their work, and they should share it with others who are trained to look with a critical eye. When designers unknowingly use something that looks like a chart, they can confuse the intended message, or even change it outright.

Visual Accidents

When a graphic design with an accidental meaning makes it to print, there can be rather embarrassing results. Here are five examples of poorly proofed graphic design with accidental meanings.
1. Venn diagrams are fairly common, and the simplest of them are usually represented with two circles overlapping. They often use transparency to reveal the area that overlaps. This design uses transparent circles that overlap, but it was never intended to be a Venn diagram.

2. It’s a great idea to rank things in order. It can help to structure information and point out patterns. But when you have quantitative data, and you rank it with something that looks like a bar chart, you misrepresent the data. An ordered bar chart would have accomplished ranking and visually communicated quantity.

3. Using lines to help a person follow a flow through a design is a good idea, but when you add points on the line and a rectangular background, it turns into a line chart. Add the context of the subject matter, and you end up with a thoroughly confusing chart thing.

4. Winner’s podiums are pretty common in our culture, so it makes sense to use them to rank the top three in a category. Unfortunately, pairing them with quantitative data in the context of an infographic can make them look like a bar chart with inaccurate quantities.

5. Bar charts can seem bland sometimes, so making them radial can seem like a good idea (even though radial charts are not as good as cartesian). Unfortunately, radial bar charts look a lot like donut charts. Donut charts have a part to whole relationship, so when you use with percentages, you expect the percentages to line up with 100% equivalent to the whole donut, 75% equivalent to three quarters, etc.

Drew Skau is Visualization Architect at Visually and a PhD Computer Science Visualization student at UNCC with an undergraduate degree in Architecture. You can follow him on Twitter @SeeingStructure