Ignite2 Portland

I’ll be presenting “a history of the stick figure” at Ignite Portland 2, Tuesday February 5th at the Bagdad Theatre. Doors open at 5:15.

You see him everywhere – hanging around bathrooms, loitering at construction sites, and perpetually crossing the street. The ubiquitous stick figure. That little, iconic, round-headed fellow on signs that makes us think twice before taking the wrong door, or helps us so we don’t really need to think at all. But where did he come from?

We’ll take a look at the origins of the stick figure from post-WWI Vienna to his current status as a cultural icon. It’s a fascinating tale of war, industry, society, and the development of a visual symbol that has evolved to represent all of us.


The stick figure’s tailor

December 11, 2007


Gerd Arntz, Dec 11, 1900 – 1988, was the lead designer of Otto Neurath’s ISOTYPE Institute (the International System of Typographic Picture Education, 1936-1945). The Institute used “speaking signs” to visually convey complex statistical information, and made it accessible to the general public through museum installations and printed publications.

It would be fair to credit Neurath with the invention of the modern “stick figure” as seen in today’s street crossings, rest rooms and construction signs, as he was the first to develop a method of using the human form as a surrogate representation for statistical information. But if Neurath was indeed the father, Arntz was the stick man’s tailor. Under Arntz’s influence, early naturalistic representations gave way to flat, less individual and more abstract designs, eventually becoming the elements of a visual dictionary.

Design features of language

November 27, 2007


Language is a complex skill that allows people to communicate an enormous number of messages using arbitrary symbols. Although some would argue that the use of language is central to defining humanity, the term “language” itself can be somewhat difficult to define.

Linguistic theorist Charles Hockett described sixteen design characteristics which he believed were central to human language. Some of the more important characteristics are displacement, arbitrariness, semanticity, and productivity.

Displacement is the ability to use language to discuss things removed in space and time (for instance, you could talk about events that happened last month in Finland).

Arbitraryness refers to the symbolic nature of language. The sounds, symbols, or signs we use to represent ideas or objects are completely arbitrary (for instance, the word “dog” doesn’t sound like a dog or look like a dog when written, it just represents a dog).

Semanticity is the meaning we then assign to these arbitrary symbols. Words and pictures have shared meaning that communicate ideas between people.

Productivity describes the creativity of language. We can create and understand a vast number of unique sentences because we can combine and recombine words using an agreed upon system of rules. For example, “the dog is melting quietly in the boardroom” is a weird statement, but since it’s structured as a sentence its meaning is clearly understood. If asked, most people would be able to describe exactly what it is the dog is doing.

The Road to Clarity

October 24, 2007

typeface legibility

As young readers we learn to make sense of words by memorizing shapes and vocalizing each individual letter in order, one at a time, until the entire word is formed. As we learn, we become able to recognize entire words at a glance, based on familiarity and context, without the need to work out individual character shapes.

Clearview, the typeface slated to replace Highway Gothic as the standard font for US road signage, takes advantage a driver’s perceptual ability to recognize word shapes, thereby allowing them to read quickly at high speeds and at greater distances than is possible with today’s signs.

Here’s a great NY Times Magazine article (registration required) about the design and testing of Clearview. Additional info and a commercial version of the font is available for purchase at clearviewhwy.com.

What is language?

October 23, 2007


From a 1918 Krazy Kat comic by George Herriman. I love Ignatz.

Visual Culture Map

September 24, 2007

Visual Culture Map

Lately I’ve been working on a mindmap of the emerging global Visual Culture (hosted on mindomo.com). The idea of a global visual culture is nothing new. With its roots in fine arts and theater, Visual Culture took a global, digital turn with the advent of TV and mass communication.

However, there is an altogether new component to this emerging culture, which is the ability to communicate with others visually and directly – that is, direct visual communication that will be enabled by new technologies.

This is a work in progress as this culture is still of course emerging. I maintain the map as a visual outline and make periodical updates as I encounter relevant examples of visual communication apps, philosophical works, or examples from history and neurophysical sciences that lend themselves to the emerging medium. Check out the Visual Culture Map.