Alternate symbols

Inspired by the article Realism in interface design [via], I started to contemplate on our symbols we are very familiar with, but rarely are aware of their origins. Of course, they are obvious origins, otherwise they wouldn’t have established such a firm root in our culture(s).
And in my normal manner, I started to question them.

Take for example, the arrow, →. A line and a triangle, signifying movement by pointing a direction, quite often two-dimensionally, by assuming a start point and a destination. The origin is quite simple; you take a long straight twig, sharpen its one end, apply acceleration, it goes in the direction you point it at, it kills an animal, you get food. The tool has been such a milestone in man’s development that it formed the symbol for a direction.
Now imagine a culture, or a species, which hasn’t developed in such a manner. How would they signify movement?

What I came up with is quite simple and, I hope, unambiguous.
I assumed the species in question has stereoscopic sight, so that it at least has a concept for perspective. With perspective, moving objects may appear larger or smaller, depending on its distance to the viewer. I also assume that the culture’s (or a creature of it) default grasp of movement is from left to right. I chose this for the sake of familiarity. I also assume the creatures are moving mainly horizontally, so the system isn’t vertical.

Further points;

  • the focus is “me“, the observer
  • the system is only two-colored; a simple tool can create a filled or an empty figure (a blunt end, and a sharp end)
  • me” is black/filled, because it’s heavier, has more contrast, so it’s higher in hierarchy.

The basic structure is a signifier of movement, if one would imagine the smaller circle to be approaching the viewer, by two frames of the motion. The circle doubles itself in size, and their distance is parallel with tangets of a 30° inclination.
These numbers have no larger meaning, I only found this to be symmetrical and harmonic. Although, isometric projection is often displayed as a 30° inclination to the horizon, as in many games, so it has an easy connection with perspective.

I also thought about our symbols + and . Obviously + has two lines, so it’s more, and – is less. But less than… what exactly?
By turn, the spherical symbols could also substitute these. The black circle is again the basic component, and adding a smaller circle on top you naturally add. Here I assume the culture has gravity, so by adding simple objects to a whole, you stack them on top of each other. The less-symbol is inverted because of semantic and visual reasons; they are easier to discern from each other, and less is the inversion of more.

Lastly, I came up with entry– and exit-symbols, which have the same visual and semantic structure as above.

These symbols were heavily influenced by a brilliant webcomic, Rice Boy.


Neat, I like these.

One obvious problem is that it’s relatively time-consuming to fill in a circle (or any shape) you’ve drawn, while an arrow only requires a few lines. In spoken languages, words that are frequently used become increasingly shortened down, and I would expect the same to happen with a pictorial language. But this isn’t a major problem, as non-filled ones work just as well.

I’m not sure if the larger circle designating the direction of motion (well, to be exact, the smaller circle designates the direction of motion just as much as the larger one, but you know what I mean) is the most intuitive one. It’s the most appealing in the “down-arrow” case, where it feels natural that the biggest object is the one that falls down first, but for the other images I find either interpretation equally easy to construct. The issue might be helped by the introduction of an asymmetry of some kind – note that arrows aren’t symmetric in the same way that your symbols are. (It also feels to me that the *way* arrows are asymmetric easily leads you to the correct interpretation, but of course that might just be the cultural conditioning.)

On the other hand, your “plus” and “minus” signs are very intuitive and natural. The “in” and “out” symbols also feel more intuitive than the “arrows”, though on further reflection I’m unable to say just what makes these interpretations of “in” and “out” so natural as compared to the opposite interpretation. Maybe it’s because the “in” icon seems to signify entering openly, while the black circle in the “out” icon is partially hidden, as if sneaking out from the back door. How cultural/universal are these feelings, I wonder?

posted by Kaj Sotala on 03.15.10 at 21:25

» it’s relatively time-consuming to fill in a circle

You can take a smooth stone or a thick branch to make a depression, which will end up as a filled circle.
A sophisticated example of a writing tool could be a conical stake; the tapered end is for empty circles and the circular end for filled circles. (In a hypothetical technological level of the culture, comparable with our era of pens and inkwells, the tool could be a combined pen and a stamp.)

» the smaller circle designates the direction of motion just as much as the larger one

That’s true, I only made the assumption that the creatures have a strong and fundamental sense of the individual point-of-view, therefore “what is coming towards me”.
The creatures could be highly social, and meetings are always important events :3

But I don’t understand what makes an arrow asymmetrical; like these symbols, the arrow is mirrored along its long axis.

posted by Nelg on 03.16.10 at 21:32

But I don’t understand what makes an arrow asymmetrical; like these symbols, the arrow is mirrored along its long axis.

Good point. I was mostly thinking about the short axis, but you’re right – both the arrow and these circle shapes are mirrored along one axis and asymmetric along the other. I guess my cultural bias got the better of me.

posted by Kaj Sotala on 03.16.10 at 21:43

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