International gestural language
I’ve always liked to think of visual communication as an international language; that it could be used to communicate regardless of which verbal language the audience speak. Unfortunately this isn’t true, sounds are obviously different between languages but so is the cultural meaning applied to the sound; tone, emphasis, body language and facial expression carry different meanings — consistency can’t be achieved. That’s not to say there aren’t some similarities though; most people nod their head up and down to mean ‘yes’ — though that doesn’t work in countries such as India where they shake their head side to side. In fact in an earlier blog post I discovered that there are only six consistent facial expression that exist between cultures. These differences in meaning extend to visual communication too; colours, symbols and typefaces carry different meanings between cultures, even reading direction changes.
As with facial expressions there are elements of graphic language that cross verbal language barriers; unlike facial expressions though, it’s possible to establish and document a consistent visual lanuage. This is handy in multi-lingual/multi-cultural environments such as airport. People moving through airports all speak different languages and come from different cultures but all need to be able to navigate the airport with the same amount of ease. A consistent visual language is applied to ensure this occurs. The AIGA produced this set of symbols that document a consistent visual language used in airports.
Another example of an international visual language is that used on AV hardware. Play, pause, stop, rewind, fast-forward etc are all able to be read regardless of culture so that production of these devices is simplified and multi-language versions are not required.
Mobile devices and touch screen computers have started to define and explore an international gesture language. Users are already getting accustomed to actions like pinching, flicking and sliding to navigate content. Standards for mobile design are changing quickly; screen resolutions and browser technology is quickly advancing on mobile platforms and people are upgrading their handsets quicker than their computer. So it’s becoming hard to set standards for every interaction. JQuery for mobile is beginning to implement these standards.
With the advent of full body gestural interaction a new international standard needs to be defined. Microsoft is leading this development because they were the first to market with consumer technology that makes use of this interaction, the Kinect sensor. They’re already using gestures like a wave to login a user — is the wave a consistent body language across all cultures? It will be interesting to see how this technology is used and what sort of gestures UX designers decide on going forward.
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