Thoughts On Developing Your Unique Visual Language

You may or may not recognize the name Frank Gehry, but I’d bet you’ve seen at least one of the buildings he’s designed. They’re certainly memorable and have a unique visual language. Seeing some recently made me think about communication and language in general and specifically about how we communicate visually.

Artists and designers make use of a shared visual language. A sharp corner or a specific color tend to carry meanings most of us will interpret the same way. They also have their own distinct language, which carries meaning specific to their work and needs to be learned by viewing the entirety of their creations.

Stata Center at MIT
MIT’s Stata Center in 2006. Designed by Frank Gehry

Our Universal Visual Language

I’ve written in the past about visual language in posts about visual grammar and the meaning of lines and the meaning of shapes. I think many of us look to this topic to understand the communication and meaning that’s universally applicable. Things like what does a circle mean as opposed to a triangle or rectangle and what does a vertical line communicate as opposed to a horizontal or angled line.

We can certainly extract meaning from different objects based on how they look

  • Horizontal lines — look to be at rest and might indicate calm and quiet. They’re in a stable position like the horizon itself.
  • Vertical lines — stand at the ready and indicate potential energy. They reach to the heavens and can convey a sense of spirituality
 IAC building
IAC Building as seen from High Line Park

We gather these meanings through comparison with real world objects and by looking at different lines and thinking about how they appear we can often come away with meaning that most people will agree with.

It’s important to have a common set of definitions in order to communicate. You and I both need to use the same definition of a word in order for that word to be useful when talking to each other. It’s the same with the rules of grammar that combine words and phrases into sentences and paragraphs.

Common languages have variation, though. English as spoken in the U.K. has differences with English spoken in the U.S. People in New York use the English language differently than people in Alabama. In writing you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) use text speak on a resume or formal scientific paper. However, you probably wouldn’t be so formal when typing into an instant messenger or sending a tweet.

I think some of us when new to design can be intimidated because we don’t yet understand the universal visual language we work with. Instead of thinking about what a mark or several marks together might mean we look to others to teach us the language. If someone tells us blue means trusting, we believe it and start using blue when we want our clients to come across as trustworthy.

While learning the universal language is important, we don’t have to wait for others to teach it to us. We can teach it to ourselves through observation and along the way develop our own variation of the language that becomes unique to us.

Disney Hall Atrium
“Tree trunk” column inside Disney Hall, viewed from first floor atrium

Your Unique Visual Language

You and I may not realize it or be as confident with our visual communication skills as Frank Gehry, but those skills are there and they’re unique. As we attempt to learn the universal we develop the unique often without conscious thought. Instead I think we’d do well to more consciously develop our own voices.

Some of the ways we can do that include:

  • Think for yourself — Look at a shape or mass or line or point on a page and decide for yourself what it means. Be confident in your observations and judgements.
  • Be consistent — If to you a circle means freedom be consistent with it. Don’t use a circle as a border to enclose other elements. The more consistent you are with your language the sooner others will understand it too.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel — There are reasons blue suggests calm and trust. It’s the color of the sky and the ocean and it contains intrinsic properties we see as soothing. Build on the universal language, but don’t try to reinvent it.
  • Expand on the universal — Take advantage of the shared meaning of visual object to transfer meaning by association. If you want people to see green as calm and quiet, use that color with horizontal lines. People will get the calm and quiet from the lines and slowly transfer it to your color choice if used consistently.

Consistency is important. We need to remember that others won’t speak our visual language at first. Only you’ll understand your language exactly as you do in the beginning. Over time you’ll be able to teach it to others through reuse.

Your unique visual language is your voice as a designer.

If you enter a new word ( a new visual object ) into the language others won’t know it’s definition. The closer your new word is to an existing one, the more likely it will be interpreted similarly. Through this connection and consistency you can slowly evolve from the universal to the unique.

Combine elements and principles in your unique way to build your visual grammar. Use size, color, position, and shape together to communicate something additional to each alone. You might even use several in a way consistent with the universal interpretation while varying one to give it new meaning.

Remember that you won’t be able to rely on your unique visual language alone to communicate. You can’t rely on others speaking the language at first. It’s an addition and not your central way you express meaning.

Over time and as your work becomes more familiar you’ll be able to rely a little more on the language you developed. Some may have worked it’s way into the universal. Some may be universally associated with you.

Your unique visual language is your voice as a designer. It becomes your style and ideally is instantly recognizable as you, much the same way few would have difficulty recognizing Shakespeare’s words as Shakespeare’s words.

Frank Gehry's Dancing House
Frank Gehry’s “Ginger and Fred” (The Dancing House) in Prague

Summary

The work of many painters can be recognized by brushstroke alone. Van Gogh’s stroke is different than Picasso’s and even without recognizing the whole work you can tell who painted what. Their brushstrokes became part of the unique visual language each uses.

When we design websites we solve specific problems that have various solutions. You might separate two elements through space alone, with a line between them, or by using different background colors behind them. Each communicates separation. How you choose to specifically communicate separation, how you choose to consistently solve problems, becomes part of your individual style and your unique visual language.

It’s important to learn and understand the common visual language. It’s how most will interpret your work. However, you shouldn’t be afraid to develop your own visual language as you do. It will help you better understand the universal and allow you to find your unique voice as a designer.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

2 comments

  1. Very interesting post and thoughts on design. I think exploring the relationship between these ideas in comparison to restrictions / freedoms that are specific to digital arts would be interesting. Also, the relationship to marketing design – where your examples refer more to designers/artists that had their own unique freedoms and restrictions.

    Anyway, I’m really glad I found this site (via Smashing Mag). Fascinating stuff here. Thanks for taking the time to write it down.

    • Thanks Sebastian. It’s funny you mention the comparisons to restrictions. I wrote a series of posts not long ago about modular design and one of the posts considered how our choice in which modules to create and use is a self imposed constraint that helps us define our visual voice.

      I’m glad you find my site too. :) I’m guessing it was from one of my articles. If I’m remembering correctly I linked to this post in my article about content choreography.

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