Simplicity… When, Where, and How?

Okay, so now that we’ve laid out what abstract image making is, let’s look at how it’s applied in contemporary American culture.

One really cool cultural read on abstraction is the perception of images that are usually made up of simple shapes. Depending on a few very subtle factors, a simple abstract image can give off two completely different vibes: Sleek/professional or child-like.

Can we appreciate that for a second? Based on a few little tweaks, an image can be read in completely OPPOSITE ways. You can see it clearly from Disney, who wants to be read as both professional and child-like, depending on the situation.

disney

The way that this is achieved can be broken into two . The more handmade and personal the subject looks, the more it’s associated with “child-like”. Conversely, the more machine-made and impersonal the subject looks, the more it’s associated with “professional”. To accentuate this machine-made effect, lots of straight/uniform lines are used and as much of the face is omitted as possible (the eyes are almost always the first to go).

The line between these two forms of abstraction are also incredibly fine. Below are some examples of this. Left is “professional”; right is “child-like”.
36396662-restroom-iconsstock-vector-man-and-women-icon-set-180381572business-people-avatars_23-2147498740165927514-mobico-icons-human-generation-gettyimagespeople-avatars_23-2147501881young-people-avatars_23-2147504397

It’s interesting to see how this plays out in the fine arts. Since much of it has moved toward abstraction with the rise of photography, it makes a lot of sense that the perception of it whiplashes between “conceptually sophisticated” and “my child could do this”. Depending on whether or not the viewer was exposed to the “sophisticated” concepts that re-contextualize abstract work with meaning (that’s usually exclusively held within upper class culture), the default interpretation of non-machine made abstract work is commonly “child-like”.

abstract
Link to the quiz

Emojis also face a conundrum from the same dichotomy of abstract image making, but expressed in a different way. More than ever, we are communicating through writing, which inherently has a degree of separation that causes crucial aspects of conversation like tone of voice to be lost. Emojis are the perfect shorthand to express that piece of information with minimal effort, however, because they look personable and friendly, emojis are often times seen as “childish” to use in professional settings.

Bar these (and I’m sure other) exceptions, generally with the rise of computers and automation, the impersonal and clean cut has become representative of progress, technology, economy, state of the art, and sleek. This can be seen in the rapid move toward simplifying logos in companies that want to brand themselves as such.

logo_comparison

I want to end by mentioning that it’s a bit of a misguided notion to think of minimal treatment as an all-purpose improvement. Though our current prevailing culture as a whole values “tech/sleek/progress”, we have to be aware of when those principles are inappropriate for a situation and when it calls for more literal and organic imagery. Examples can be drawn from when a brand or theme wants to evoke the opposite meaning of “technology”, “economy”, “state of the art”, and “sleek”.

Some themes include “play”:

…”Natural/home-grown/not over-processed”:

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…”Traditional/Old/Vintage”:

…And “spectacle”:

On that note, it’s important to remember that just because abstract image making (at least in current American culture) holds this sort of meaning right now, it is always subject to change. These are just some observations I’ve made so far, but who knows how abstraction will be used in the future!

Anyways, I hope you found this as interesting as I did. Thanks for reading!

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When Pictures and Language Combine

In my last blog post, I talked about how image making is just one big love letter to the human experience. Now I want to get into what language that letter might be written in. To do so, let’s start with abstraction.

So what exactly is abstract image making? For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to define it as the creation of images that are characterized by nondescript and often simplistic shapes. Because of these qualities, it has the capacity to be easily recognizable, relateable, and/or reproducible, all excellent traits for facilitating communication. This is especially evident in early languages where writing and drawing frequently meant the same thing.

ancient-egypt-hieroglyphics

But communication requires not just form, but meaning. Sooo… how do you build meaning into an image? Especially highly abstracted ones? Like words, reading an image requires a learned vocabulary and must be related to by borrowing from common visual/human experiences. It could be a common natural experience:

fire
Note how the icon takes the most important characteristics that define the subject and exaggerates it.

Or a man-made one:

Note that because experiences associated with a nation can vary widely (as opposed to something as universal as “fire”), a flag might mean something completely different to different people.

Speaking of repetitive association, one interesting subset of abstracted imagery is the alphabet (or really any other modular visual system, like sheet music). Each letter is purposefully designed to hold little to no meaning on its own so that a combination of its form can be used as an empty shell to fill with meaning.

 

Because of this, the line between the written word and icon are understandably blurry. At first it might not seem that way (at least for English) because we think of it as “reading” words and “seeing” pictures, however research has shown that we seem to process familiar words similarly to the way we process icons. Below, you can see it illustrated in a passage:

teaser-scrambledtext-01

In fact, typography and logo design are built on top of these principles.

i_text

Interestingly, because of this splitting between text and icon, some concepts are easier to convey through text, and others through iconography. This is why situations that require getting the quickest, clearest read oftentimes utilize a combination of different forms of image making.

th_427

Sometimes, what started off as an abstract image paired with text might even garner so much cultural relevance through repetitive association that its meaning becomes ubiquitous. When this happens, the text is often times dropped, because it’s safe to assume that everyone already knows what the image means. By examining which concepts and icons receive this sort of treatment we can really start to see what defines a particular culture.

mcdonaldsmcdonalds_logo

Below is a really simplified flowchart summarizing the ideas discussed above.

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