Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Question of a Universal Icon Leads to Bathroom Talk

(Warning: This post is Rated PG-13)

There is this thing called The Noun Project. I find it somewhat challenging to tell from their web pages just what they do. However, my sense, based upon an activity I took part in last night with the UX Speakeasy crowd, is that has to do with ... nouns. And icons? The idea that nouns can be represented with icons. And that there are many possible representations for any given noun - in icon form. (iconic? Icon is a noun; iconic is not ("Of, relating to, or having the character of an icon." )

It is fun to play with words; with nouns. To share icons about nouns. That seems to be what The Noun Project is about. Led, in part with operatic vocalizations, by Jeannel King a Graphic Facilitator and founder of Big Picture Solutions, about 100 of us went through an enthusiastic activity where Jeannel whipped off a series of nouns with only seconds between each one and we had to draw each one. No thinking - just draw it! A round of ten words coming almost as fast as those legalese voices at the end of commercials. Draw each one with large markers "Big Fat Lines for Big Fat Ideas".

There was a certain amount of squawking at first from those who really wanted to "think" - but Thinking Was Out, and Instinct Was In. Whatever you draw is good enough - tough for those who want to get it right. To realize there is no "right".

Which was part of the point. My gut level interpretation of "banana" is not necessarily your gut level interpretation of "banana"; nor the instinctive perception of "banana" held by someone who lives in the far reaches of the Arctic. And we know that much of human behavior comes from gut level rather than cognitive decision making.

The warm up round was comprised of relatively easy nouns: cloud, money, beer, banana, house, tree. Everyone put marker to sticky note and drew their 2 second bananas. And we put them up for all to see and discuss. Although one could justifiably claim that the following rounds of nouns were harder, e.g. "user; interaction; design; context; information; usable; innovation; perception; research; input" that would be too simplistic a conclusion.

At one point the guy next to me said "Are we being mono-culture?" - because so many people put up $ for "money" and no one made a peep about it. GOOD CALL! Yes, that indeed was part of the point, as, seconds later, Jeannel drew everyone's attention to the implicit and often unconscious assumptions we make. Even on the simple things. And if we want to talk to the world, how to guard against assumptions and inherent cultural perceptions?

All of which begs the question: Is there any such thing as a universal symbol? Pulling my investigative
journalist hat on snugly I set out to discover what the crowd thought about this.

The first two people definitively said "no". There can be no symbol which is universal. So I moved on.

The next person said "yes". They seemed surprised when I then asked for an example (you'd think someone would see that coming a mile away!). After the briefest of pauses: "The Play Button". I looked quizzical (so much for being the objective reporter) but they held their ground. Their conversation partner sensed where I was going and stepped in with "it depends upon your anthropological approach". I looked more quizzical, not wanting to let them off the hook just yet. So he said "It depends upon your ethnography".

The next person said "Yes" and "math is the same in every language". Someone else also played the math card and said "+ and - are the same in every language".

Really? Is that so? If one knows one's anthropology and has done some ethnography one might question the universality of math symbols. +, - or otherwise.

The next answer, one which I got from several people, was fun to think about: "Yes". "Guy and girl
bathroom pictures".  Are Universal.

Putting my quizzical expression back on (in the name of investigative journalism) an interesting introspective then took place in which the person started thinking aloud about pants, skirts, men with skirts, putting the same symbol on both doors, and transgender bathrooms with possible symbol (icon) complications. One then wonders: Would a sufficiently transgender icon lead to unisex bathrooms? Or to some people being able to choose either bathroom but others being restricted to one or the other? Would people spend so much time trying to decipher the icon that they would stand outside the bathroom doors puzzling until their bladder burst?

This, I believe, is really what our exercise last night was meant to encourage people to do - think about the meaning behind words, the symbols we choose to use for them, the context and the audience. Do so with some depth and question assumptions and the things we take for granted. If we want to be effective communicators that is.

But just in case you think the matter is settled, the last response I received may be one of the harder to parry. I popped the question about the possibility of a noun with a universal symbol and this person enthusiastically, hopped right over the "yes" part, and not waiting to be looked at quizzically, said "PENIS!".

I leave you to imagine the conversation that followed; and invite you to draw your own conclusion about the possible universality of a symbol for the "p" word.

No comments:

Post a Comment