Sunday, September 05, 2010

What makes this work?

I was on an airplane recently and came across this signage in the rest room. Of course, most of us would recognize that it signals the existence of a fold-down table for changing babies.

But I had one of those moments where I looked at the components of the pictogram and wondered why it worked. There are two detached circles. There is a wide horizontal line. There is a squiggle that looks like a broad "u" with a serif on its top left. And then there is this odd assortment of combined shapes: A vertical post, a trapezoid attached at an angle to a rectangle, a short vertical post, and another post at an angle.

How do we know this odd assortment is a woman? Would this be understood in a culture where women only wear floor length dresses?

Likewise, how do we know the squiggle and the circle are a baby?

How do the detached circles persuade us that they are part of people? Why don't we think both people have been decapitated?

I am hoping there are people out there who can explain why this works, both visually and culturally. Please comment.

12 comments:

e-Patient Dave said...

I don't have links, but there's a VAST body of research about which image components are recognized almost universally.

Deconstructing real shapes into primitive elements is an art itself. You need space between them so they work even if they're seen in poor lighting or with bad eyes.

Once a shape is recognized, its meaning gets interpreted. Some are built-in (large person bent over small person connotes parent) and some are learned - skirt-shape signifies women, trousers signify men. (That's clearly not a built-in biological primitive, nor a universal reality.)

I'm sure you'll get much more erudite responses from the neuro geniuses.

Paul Harriman said...

Of equal interest is why it should show the adult as a woman! I suspect I spent equally as much time changing nappies

Sharon said...

Don't men change diapers?

Gary said...

NPR just ran a good story on symbolic thought, that talks about a similar topic.

Gary said...

Link to NPR's story on symbolic thought.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129082962

Aquatiki said...

I thought perhaps it was a crane petting a duck with a ball behind it...

James said...

A further question might be-why is there the assumption that only women change babies?

As a proud father I've had many occasions to change diapers at home, in malls, and on airplanes.

Nick said...

Paul, It works just like the colors red, or blue or green. It works because we agree that it works.

Nothing has to be the way that it is. No way is the ONLY right way. Our laws, our borders, our views are all a product of people agreeing at some level on whatever the concept involves. We live in a world of unlimited possibilities, and unless or until we recognize the "calf paths of our minds,"we will continue to follow those random ideas from centuries ago that make no sense.

Just a thought.

Howard said...

For me the circles, lines and squiggles tell a story of “caring” by their juxtaposition more than the traditional symbolism of the skirt or size of the figures. Lines tend to express levels of tension and the mother figure is bent at a more relaxed angle and the baby figure has its legs, almost playfully, bent upwards. Even without the skirt, as it should be gender neutral in my opinion, you would see similar structure in many classical painting of the Madonna and Child.

Anonymous said...

"It works because we agree that it works."

A few years ago in the Czech Republic I was confronted by two restrooms, one with a picture of a person standing and the other with a picture of a person sitting down. There were no gender specific clothes or indicators.

It was still pretty easy to figure out where I needed to go.

Anonymous said...

It's just like the questions of why do our brains recognize the letter W as the letter W whenever we see it. With everyones unique handwriting and the mulitude of fonts, no two W's look alike yet we still see it as a W. It's because our brains want to categorize everything. And they are pretty good at it.

Justin K said...

It is pure conditioning. Rather than learn and understand we just accept as being.

However it is photos like this, that would work with a "create a caption" type contest.

You do bring up good points though. It will make me look at those stick figure type signage in when I come across it and wonder how universal those images are, if only for a few weeks, until the conditioned old me, begins to just start accepting it again.