Palaeo-iconics

aaahr
aaahr! (E. Bruinsma 2011)

In the header of this blog there is at least one element that will soon be inintelligible (a nice neoplatonic synonym for ‘incomprehensible’) for many people. The disappearance of iconic forms proceeds with a speed comparable to that of the eclipse of species in the natural world. The telephone, consisting of a lumpy black body connected to a heavy horn that fitted snugly in a sailor’s fist by a crinkly cord. The radio, with a dial, a needle that moves across a glass surface inscribed with the names of the stations. The book, consisting of bound leaves of paper, squeezed in between stiff boards, covered with linen or leather. The light-bulb, a glass balloon filled with a helical filament that emits light when heated by an electric current.The TV, the computer, even the cell-phone… and so on. Many of these easily identifiable forms play an important part in the design of icons, signs, instructions, visual explanations, and in the transmission of ideas across languages and cultures.

iconics
iconic shapes (E. Bruinsma 2011)

Many of these expressive forms are replaced by the stereotype of the first decade of the twenty-first century: a box. Even the big piled-up boxes that still ruled the living room of the turn of the century (cd-player, dvd-player, amplifier, receiver), will soon be obsolete and replaced by even smaller boxes. Design savvy people will have smooth and slick boxes with slightly rounded corners and impeccable finish, while pragmatic people will have less sophisticated boxes. Vinyl records, big black circles with a hole in the centre, have been replaced by smaller translucent disks, and these smaller disks will eventually eclipse when all audiovisual entertainment is stored in a tiny flat box that you connect to your small hifi boxes.

For the designers of information graphics this creates a growing dilemma. When every function, action, concept or notion can be represented by a box, it will be increasingly difficult to visualize abstract ideas without harnessing the knowledge of the world that is present in the user invoking the help of iconic real-world shapes to get your message through. With the possible exception of the light-bulb, which will only miss its filament, being replaced by LED’s, arranged in a pattern that looks like a circular array of little yellow stickers. At least the triumphant “EUREKA” accompanied by the light-bulb will be with us for a bit longer.

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