First Monday

Urban Screens: the beginning of a universal visual culture by Paul Martin Lester

There can be no words without images. _Aristotle

Austrian statistician Otto Neurath wrote in 1925, “words divide, pictures unite.” In 1936 Neurath introduced a set of pictographic characters he called Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education) that he hoped would become a universal visual language and help unify the world. Traffic, airport, and Olympic competition sign designers owe their careers in large part to the efforts of Neurath and his staff. As we can see today by the examples shown and analysed in this special issue on urban screens, the unification of the world is happening literally in front of our eyes whether as similarly stylistic graffiti mural presentations or seven-story nanotech light shows projected on an infinite variety of urban substrates. Literal, narrative, horizontal, cloistered, and verbal culture is being replaced by symbolic, interactive, profound, global, and visual culture. Neurath would be pleased.


Words are forgotten, but pictures stay in our minds
The syntax of symbols: a brave new (visual) world
The alphabet of images and objects
The only 'language' understood in all parts of the world
Medium and message form one symbolic statement
Visual messages become a language when read in the mind





Before we are four years old, most of us have learned “The Alphabet Song.” Sung to the same tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” it is unlike any other song because no pictures come to mind when singing it. With Twinkle, we can look up in the night's sky and imagine a little star out of the billions shining just for us. But a song about the letters in the alphabet does not carry any visual equivalents. Children soon match up, however, concrete nouns with images for each letter in the song. Children's books help to solve the mystery. "A is for apple ...." Each letter of the alphabet becomes a picture that corresponds with a complex set of direct and mediated images. We no longer have to think of an actual red, juicy apple. We can simply see the letter 'A' and know that it stands for that fruit.

Before children learn to read and write, they do not know the difference between a line drawing and a letter. When an adult writes an 'A', it is simply another drawing. It is a picture, different than a face or a house, but it is still just another image drawn with a coloured pencil on while paper. Soon children learn that combinations of these letter-pictures mean more complicated things. When the drawings 'A-P-P-L-E' are combined, they form another picture, which we learn stands for the name of the fruit. Now the letter-pictures become word-pictures that can spark other images in our minds of the thing they stand for. We further learn that these word-pictures can be combined with other word-pictures to form sentence-pictures. To a child, there is no difference between words and pictures - they are one and the same.

Early on however, we are taught to make distinctions between words and pictures and to not think of them in the same way. We are taught that although we can gain meaning from each, reading words is valued more than reading pictures. We are taught that pictures play a separate and subservient role to the words. And although we are taught how to make pictures with our coloured pencils and our watercolour paints, we get much more instruction on how to form, with our large lead pencils, the lines and curves that make letters and words. We get one class where we make pictures - art. The other classes are devoted to writing or reading stories whether in a grammar or in a geography class. We are taught to read stories, but we are never taught how to read images.

In the Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast, the macho Gaston satirises Belle's reading habits. "How can you read this," he asks, "there are no pictures?" She answers with a condescending, "Well, some people use their imagination." And yet, when the viewer of the animated movie is shown a close-up of a page in her book, she points to a picture of a castle that illustrates the story.


Words are forgotten, but pictures stay in our minds

There are strong indications that the status of images is improving. We live in a mediated blitz of images. They fill our newspapers, magazines, books, clothing, billboards, computer monitors and television screens as never before in the history of mass communications. Something is happening. We are becoming a visually mediated society. For many, understanding of the world is being accomplished, not through reading words, but by reading images. Philosopher Hanno Hardt warns that the television culture is replacing words as the important factor in social communication. Shortly, words will be reserved for only bureaucratic transactions through business forms and in books that will only be read by a few individuals. Reading is losing to watching because viewing requires little mental processing.

But visual messages, with their own rules of syntax, are being read, but this language means nothing to those who can only read words.

The wall space and signs in many cities often are coated with multi-coloured spray painted messages. Termed vandalism, graffiti or tagging depending on the speaker, these visual messages are actually a complex written form of communication. Graffiti messages may mean the mark of a territorial border by a gang, a plea for understanding and hope for the future, grief for a killed loved one, anger toward an enemy, a show of playfulness and humour as part of a national fad, an act of criminal vandalism or simply an individual expression that signals the writer's existence. As with any symbolic communicative system, if you do not know the language, you will have trouble deciphering the message.

The displays in this issue, as most are commercial or self-referential, are by nature easily comprehended. What infuses these urban space displays with complexity and makes them worthy of intense scholarship are the juxtapositions of these images against each other and in complimentary conflict (at least after analysis) with typical city scenes - buildings, traffic signs, streets, vehicles, pedestrians, sky views, and so on. This dissonance creates unique meanings - a unique language - a visual culture.

Although it is unclear what may be the social, religious and educational affects this visual culture will have upon the world's society, the use of images may foster a return of the word's importance. Or rather, a communication medium in which words and pictures have equal status may be a result of the recent explosion in pictures. Because television images cross all international borders, they become more easily understood by almost everyone. Words are easily forgotten, but pictures stay in our minds. We may not remember many of the facts that led to the brief student uprising in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989, but you can never forget the image of the lone protester standing defiantly in front of a line of menacing, green Chinese tanks. If you have seen the picture, you remember it not only because it is a highly emotional image, but also because you have thought about the image in your mind with words. Words and pictures become one powerfully effective communicative medium inside your own mind.

John Sculley, the former CEO of Apple Computers, Inc. is not afraid of the world's dependence on images for communication. "We live in a visually intensive society," he asserts. Look at the most common medium for visual expression - television. Programs can be watched from direct broadcast, from cable and fibre optics, from satellites, from VCRs and from laser disks. On some television sets you can even watch more than one program at a time. In a television commercial for Kodak's Photo CD technology, the announcer reports "Pictures have never been so powerful." When televisions and computers are linked, some call these appliances “teleputers,” viewers will actually be able to alter the content and technical considerations of programs to suit their individual interests. The combination will indeed be a powerful medium for pictures.


The syntax of symbols: a brave new (visual) world

Computers make the production and distribution of images available to almost anyone at an incredible speed. More than any other technological innovation, computers are responsible for the explosion in images. Like the 'Big Bang' that many scientists think sent the universe on its course, computers will serve to expand the use of pictures. Most of the words and pictures created in the world is computer mediated. Educational psychologist Jerome Bruner of New York University cites studies that show persons only remember ten percent of what they hear, 30 percent of what they read, but about 80 percent of what they see and do. When all members of society whether at home, in school and on the job learn to use computers for word and picture processing, the switch will be made from passive watching to active using. There will no longer be the barrier between the two symbolic structures. Words and pictures will become one, powerful and memorable mode of communication.

Linguistic theorists categorically assert that since pictures are presentational and not discursive, they have no formal grammar. Without a grammar, images cannot be considered a language. Without a language, pictures cannot be read. Traditionally, syntax and grammar refer to the system of rules that are used to turn words into sentences. The syntactic rules applied for proper sentence structure are culturally based - they change from language to language and over time. Once learned, the rules make it easy for an individual within a culture to write and read stories on an infinite variety of subjects about the myths that shape a culture. Words are the basis for human understanding because of their narrative structure. Philosopher Susan Sontag writes, "Only that which narrates can make us understand."

There are two major stumbling blocks that linguistic philosophers impose as to why images cannot be considered a language:

  1. Images do not have common elements similar to a written language's alphabet and
  2. Images have no recognised syntax.

Linguistic philosopher Noam Chomsky writes, "a language is defined by its alphabet (i.e. the finite set symbols out of which its sentences are constructed) and its grammatical sentences."

American philosopher Suzanne Langer wrote "Photography ... has no vocabulary .... There are no items that might be called, metaphorically, the 'words' of portraiture." For Langer, the problem with admitting that there is a visible language is not that there are no words - pictorial elements - in still or motion picture photography, but that there is no universally acceptable language of visual description. However, some have devised such a language for visuals with well-defined alphabets.


The alphabet of images and objects

French semiotician, Fernande Saint-Martin attempts to create an alphabet for images in her book, Semiotics of Visual Language. For Saint-Martin, colour is the basic visual element. Colour, as a form of light, gives shape and substance to the visible world. Her basic visual alphabetic letter is called the "coloreme." A coloreme is the smallest element within a direct or mediated image that can be focused within the foveal field of the retinas. A coloreme can be composed of a picture's actual colour, texture, size, boundaries, direction or position in the frame of view. These physical attributes of the image, once noticed and identified, find meaning through successive viewings, similar to the ideas expressed by the constructivists.

In 1987 Irving Biederman published his theory of visual perception in which he outlined the alphabet of objects. Any written alphabet is simply a collection of symbols that correspond to the sounds made during speech. A basic unit of speech is called a phoneme. For all the languages in the world, only 55 phonemes are needed. The 44 phonemes for the English language are simplified into 26 characters - the alphabet. Webster actually lists 50 alphabetic symbols that are used to describe all the sounds needed to pronounce the more than 50,000 words in his Dictionary, but 26 letters suffice. Biederman recognised that every object is composed of primitive shapes or parts. He called these basic components "geons," short for geometrical ions. Through his research, he discovered that only 36 geons are needed to make all objects. But because of previous experience with an object, most persons can recognise it by viewing only three geons. An object that is unusual, obscured, seen at an odd angle or out of context will require more geons. It seems that the mind may store images symbolically within the brain in the form of geons in order to make recognition quick and simple. Biederman's work may be an important link between the way words and images are thought to be viewed. Once a written language is learned, a reader usually does not have to consciously analyse every letter within a word. Whole words become a part of a "verbal geon."

The problem with the theories of Saint-Martin and Biederman is that their schemes could never fully describe all of the elements that make up a detailed image. Coloremes and geons offer indications of a symbolic storage of images, but the processing of coloremes and geons become so individualised to the point that no two persons would identify the same pictorial elements. A visual 'alphabet' should be easily recognised by all those using it every time. Coloremes and geons are far too abstract for such a purpose. There can probably never be an alphabet for images. Nevertheless, the brain does respond to an image's basic visual elements of colour, form, depth and movement. Although these elements may not have the simple symbolic meaning of alphabetic characters, a difficulty in finding an alphabet for images indicates the richness of communication possibilities of pictures over words.


The only 'language' understood in all parts of the world

The great documentary photographer, Lewis Hine, who often used words to accompany his photographs once said, "If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn't need to lug a camera." It is beyond question that words and pictures are different animals. But each possess a language that some can interpret better than others. Photographic historian Helmut Gernsheim wrote that "Photography is the only 'language' understood in all parts of the world, and bridging all nations and cultures." On the other hand, photography philosopher John Berger admits that "photographs supply information without having a language of their own. Photographs quote rather than translate from reality." Sol Worth, an expert of visual communication wrote of a compromise between the two points. "Pictures are not a language in the verbal sense. Pictures have neither lexicon nor syntax in a formal grammarian's sense. But they do have form, structure, convention and rules."

The semiotic approach to visual communication stresses the idea that images are a collection of signs that are linked together in some way by the viewer. The study of semiotics, as detailed by Morris, divides itself into three areas: pragmatics, semantics and syntactics. Pragmatics is the study of the origin, common uses and communicative effects of signs. Semantics is an area of semiotics in which the researchers attempt to determine the significance of signs within and throughout various cultures. Syntactics is the study of the ways signs are combined with each other to form complex messages.

Since semiotics grew out of linguistic theory, pragmatics, semantics and syntactics are terms used in analysing written or spoken communications. However, since a direct or mediated image is nothing more than a collection of signs, the area of syntactics is of most interest to visual communicators because an image is a collection of graphic elements that convey meaning for the viewer. Charles Sanders Peirce wrote that a sign always refers to another sign and never to the actual object "in itself." Agreeing with him, Ferdinand de Saussure noted that the meaning communicated by a sign depends not on actual objects but on other signs. For him, a sign by itself means nothing.

Despite occasional problems in discerning the meaning from pictures and words in publications, the combination of the two symbolic systems is one of the most powerful communicative strategies known. Wilson Hicks writes that when words and pictures are equally expressive, the two become one medium where "the meaning of the work can be achieved in one perceptual act." John Berger also celebrates the word and picture collaboration:

In the relation between a photograph and words, the photograph begs for an interpretation, and the words usually supply it. The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given meaning by the words. And the words, which by themselves remain at the level of generalisation, are given specific authenticity by the irrefutability of the photograph. Together the two then become very powerful; an open question appears to have been fully answered.

Words and pictures are both collections of symbolic images. Words are signs composed of lines, curves and open and closed shapes. Words, as with pictures can be presented in a variety of colours, forms, depths and movements. Words have their historical roots as images and are still thought to be works of art by typographical designers and calligraphers.

Words have such a long history and are used by so many that it is easily forgotten that they are actually equivalent to line drawings. Words, made up of individual letters, are pictures that have completely lost the resemblance between what they are and what they stand for. In that regard, words are the quintessential symbolic image. The oldest form of communication is by pictures. But when it became clear that pictures were awkward for keeping long, complicated messages, the drawings became simplified so that they could be more portable. Once linked to the sounds of speech, the pictures lost forever their visual links to their direct image roots.

Nevertheless, words maintain their pictorial link with their past through the size, style, colour, use of italics, boldface, reverse, etc. variations. Meaning not only comes from their symbolism as words, but also from their symbolism as pictures.


Medium and message form one symbolic statement

Suzanne Langer writes that the reason words have such a hold for literate societies is that they have such a "long history of understood meaning." Words are economical and easily combined symbols that have no other value except as symbols. If you become interested in the writing of the word itself, as in the case of creative typographic arrangements, the word loses some of its meaning. Computer technology, however, makes it possible for anyone with a desktop workstation to manipulate typeface fonts and to even create their own designs. Newspaper and magazine publishers hire graphic artists who are trained to turn words into visual statements that have a symbolic meaning apart from that of the words themselves. Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said that the medium is the message. The new age in communication technology makes obvious what has been known about images since they were first created. For pictures and now for words it is clear that the medium and the message form one symbolic statement. The medium - colour, form, depth and movement - are characteristics that help define the message. Roland Barthes asserts that "lines satisfy the eyes while symbols satisfy the mind." But when the lines, shapes and colours have meaning, the mind is satisfied by both. Abstract painters were the first to recognise the link between lines and symbols. The eye and the mind are one. Understanding symbols is what separates humans from other animals. It is the fundamental necessity for rational thought. For Langer, "dogs scorn our paintings because they see colour canvases, not pictures."

Before Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf learned to connect words with the objects she touched in her environment, her mind was filled with non-visual, non-verbal emotions. Once she learned the name for water, that wet substance that made her feel good, the symbol and the object were forever linked. To feel good again, she did not need to actually drink water. Now she only needed to think of its name. The connotation remains in the mind through the word symbol without help from the denotation. The symbol and the object of its meaning become fused in the mind. Denotation and connotation become one.

Langer writes that "All genuine thinking is symbolic, and the limits of the expressive medium are, therefore, really the limits of our conceptual powers. Symbols in order to be thought must be verbalised." She was not referring to spoken verbalisations, but mental thoughts in the form of words. The perceptual elements of colour, form, depth, and movement make it possible to turn signs within direct or mediated images into remembered thoughts. A perception has meaning only when the signs are recognisable and can be related, through memory, to personal and cultural experiences.

It is well known that previously viewed perceptions can be recalled through verbal stimuli. You can easily see for yourself how symbols are used to retain events and ideas in your memory. Next time you read a newspaper, wait a few hours and try to remember the stories that were printed on the pages. You probably will not recall many. Ask a friend, with the newspaper in hand, to give you clues from each story or to show you a photograph, if one accompanied the article. Through this recall method, you will prove to yourself that the facts of the day's events are still within your mind. Whether you remember the words and pictures in the newspaper over a much longer period of time depends on how often you recall them mentally. Dreams quickly fade from memory because they are purely visual experiences that have not been translated into a verbal format. If you want to remember a particularly moving or significant dream, psychologists advise that you immediately tell the dream to someone or write the content of the dream down on a sheet of paper next to your bed. Only by verbal reinforcement of the dream's content will it become a part of your long-term memory.

Psychologists have found that concrete nouns are much more effectively remembered and an aid to recall than abstract ones. The concrete nouns of ball, book, bottle, baby, etc. are easier to visualise in the mind because of their link to real objects. Abstract concepts of freedom, peace, ethics, love, etc. are harder to link to a single image. But in 1836 for his book Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that the roots of all words - even abstract concepts - are concrete in nature. "Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact," he wrote, "if traced to its roots, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance." As the Greek poet Simonides wrote, "Words are the images of things." Giving names to objects enhances the memory of those objects.

When you carefully analyse a visual message, you consciously study each visual symbol within that picture's frame. The act of concentration is a verbal exercise. Without verbal translations of the signs within an image, there is little chance of it being recalled in the future. The picture is lost from your memory because you have learned nothing from it. Images become real property of the mind and remembered only when language expresses them. Linguistic experts do not need to argue that images have no alphabet or syntax because such assertions are true. The alphabet and the syntax of images reside in the mind, not in the picture itself.

Societies with only a spoken language had better recall of objects and events because their mental symbol systems had to be highly developed. Writing and the literacy that spread throughout the world decreased the need for memory because once an event is recorded on paper, it does not have to be remembered exactly as it originally happened. Consequently, the need for a complex system of signs within the mind has decreased over time as words have dominated communication. As images become even more prevalent, memory may once again reach the level of 'primitive' cultures.


Visual messages become a language when read in the mind

Signs have no meaning outside of their context. Visual and verbal thoughts combine to create the context that links signs together to form symbols that can be remembered and recalled. Context is the glue that binds visual and verbal symbols together. Recognising context is the chief function of a rational mind. The face of someone you know can be immediately recalled as imagery of the mind. But that face is not a literal, detailed, photographic image. The mind's picture is a combination of the perceptual elements - colour, form, depth and movement - that are needed to describe appearance combined with the verbal thoughts that define the context in which the person appears.

Memorable images, either directly experienced or seen through a mediated format, are those that you think about. They are usually simple compositions with immediate impact. They are images that trigger the emotional and rational aspects of your mind's personality. They are pictures you recall again and again long after the original object of perception has faded from your retinas. Images, then, are remembered by thinking about them in words.

As hinted by the writers with their examples from around the world in this special edition on urban screens, the definition of what is a word is changing. An ultimate result of this cultural process may result in a time in the untold future in which humans will revert to a way of thinking about communication that makes no distinction between a word and a picture - not unlike the mindsets of ancient cave drawing communicators from 30,000 years ago. Words and images will simply be one:

Archaeologists in the year 3706 uncovering the buried ruins of any major city in the world will no doubt find text on billboards, storefronts, traffic signs, and so on in the languages we know and use today. These words however will probably not be understood by 38th Century scientists because languages of today will eventually become obsolete and forgotten. Luckily, there will be an energetic and tenacious researcher with a well-used digging tool who will find along the viaducts and abandoned highways in the old cities evidence of writing that will be instantly recognised and easily read. For amid the buried rubble of civilisations long past will be elaborated and brightly coloured signs and symbols created by graffiti artists that will last through the millennia. This often scoffed and criminalised form of visual communication will in the future become the one, universally accepted language. Therefore, the future of mass communications does not reply on the preservation of pens, paper, computers, or satellites. In the vast future, we will probably understand ancient civilisations (us) because of nanotech paint delivered through spray can equivalents.

Visual messages are part of a language because they are a collection of signs and as such, become a language when read in the mind. When words and images have equal status within all media of communications, the cultural cues that define a society will not only be more efficiently passed from one generation to the next, but within this generation, here and now, diverse cultures will be able to understand each other a little better.End of article

About the author

Paul Martin Lester is a tenured, full professor of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. After an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and employment as a photojournalist for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Lester received a Master’s from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. from Indiana University in mass communications. He is the author or editor of several books including Visual Journalism: A Guide for New Media Professionals (with Christopher R. Harris), Images that Injure Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media 2nd Edition (with Susan D. Ross), Visual Communication Images with Messages 4th Edition, Desktop Computing Workbook, Photojournalism An Ethical Approach, and The Ethics of Photojournalism. Paul has published numerous articles in major communication journals and has given keynote speeches, panel discussions, presentations and workshops throughout the world.

E-mail: lester [at] fullerton [dot] edu


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Contents Index

Copyright ©2006, First Monday

Copyright ©2006, Paul Martin Lester

Urban Screens: the beginning of a universal visual culture by Paul Martin Lester
First Monday, Special Issue #4: Urban Screens: Discovering the potential of outdoor screens for urban society (February 2006),

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