Are Design Icons Close to Proto-Language Use?


Anchorage and Compass

In reading Reading In The Brain I can’t really get myself away from the feeling that I’m learning important perceptual and experiential truths that involve digital design when the author discusses how the brain divides up the workload of decoding written inscription, in a “pandemonium” of neuron hierarches. But in this passage above something else occurs to me. Because early art or even writing was not strictly “representational” there is this sense that depiction is more “operational” which is exactly what icons are. I’ve been captured by the design sense that in digital enviroments people often far less aware of where they are and what they should do than we think they are. Designers spend so much time slaving over minutia of a page, little aesthetics here and little asethetics there, it never occurs to them that people won’t know where the profile or contact button is. I put it over “there” it is obvious.

The first thing that faces a new user is orientation. Where am I? Am I in the right place? How do I move around? These things need to be very clear, and made clear very fast, even for experienced internet users. I can’t help but think that the anchoring operators of early cave painting are important lessons here. Icons, navigation, they draw on some of the most powerful dimensions of word magic. And even in sites that are inhabited by familiar, repeat visitors, the power of operator iconography (and calls to action) are things that structure and enable the flow of activity. Compassry is a neglected art in the world of digital design.