The power in the visual language
Together with bachelor students at Bergen Academy of Art and design we have experimented with how we could collect stories for and from challenging life situations. We have invitide non-designers to co-design in the search for new tools for sharing experiences from difficult daily lives.
In the period 2010–2016 we arranged several courses where we collected words and stories from challenging life situations. We cooperated with sellers of the street magazine Megafon, beggars and drug-addicts living temporary at Bakkegaten housing and care community, and elderly living at Margit Tanners Remembrance, and searched for ways to transform stories from challenges met and dreams dreamt into emotional pictograms. In a pictogram course for the 3rd Year BA students in Visual communication in 2010, where we work together with drug users, we experienced the challenge of working with people with varying ‘daily health’, who were most difficult to make appointments with and to facilitate workshops for, we had to go out and meet some of them in their milieu. Inspired by Action research and Human centred design, and with respect for the participant’s insight and knowledge, we tested a variety of methods for working on life stories (Dowling in Tiller 2014:236-240). We invited different resources to contribute in the courses, to discuss pictograms from a broad perspective: The history and development of pictograms: Professor Teal Triggs (London College of Communication), semiology: Professor Erimitius Søren Kjørup (Roskilde University), anthropological concerns: Professor Mary-Bente Bringslid (UiB), philosophical concerns: International Exchange Co-ordinator Vegard Rivenes (KHiB), facilitating and Pictogram development experiences by Master student Ingar Midtbø and Henriette Hukset (KHiB), body language by dancer Hege Østby and abstract figuration by Herbert Wiegand (KHiB), amongst others. We experienced that the students were limited in their explorations; they based their work mostly on observation and interviews. We wished to further investigate visualisation, to use the potential in the visual language, to open up for better insight and conversations. What would for example happen if we transform the surroundings, create shifts of scenery in rooms, or did use multimedia to stimulate senses?
Could empathy kill creativity?
A surprising experience was that our insight into the situation of the challenged groups, and the empathy created with and for them, in some cases made it most difficult for the students to work on the visual material. Our experience with the students was the complete opposite of what methodological theory states. For example, the Norwegian Design Council points out how an inclusive design approach is a source of inspiration and an opportunity for innovation (Eikhaug 2010:8):
«Inclusive design is set to become an important design movement in the 21st century, building on the increasing interest in it and social advancements of the last century. Involving end users within the design and development process is becoming a more successful and proven way of engaging consumers and is also driven by legislation» (Eikhaug 2010:6).
Inclusive design and people-centred design processes are said to be effective as development processes, because users can play a leading role in defining issues and helping to focus direction, therefor there has been a shift from designing for users, to designing with users, where the user also becomes co-creator (Fuad-Luke 2009:143). As Alastair Fuad-Luke writes in Design Activism this shift has been paralleled with recent debate about the social dimensions of design. Participatory design has become mainstream and politically correct. But the great degree of empathy encouraged in the Pictogram-me project, instead seemed to have a negative impact on the student’s creativity and ability to find flow. Professor in psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has studied flow, and describes flow as a sense of effortless action (Csikszentmihalyi 1971:29). Such processes might lead to unexpected and high quality results. To be in flow means to loose the focus on «the others» and other peoples expectations. Where as a too greater degree of empathy and good intentions may lead the students to be too self-critical, and too judgemental towards the expected result during the process. The designer’s social consciousness becomes a burden of social responsibility rather than inspirational insight. We have received feedback from designers that they recognise this conflict between involving users and finding flow. Even so, during these years, the students developed numerous pictograms in a variety of styles. The collections were later evolved into a font-family, the Pictogram-me font.
In the development of our first pictograms we wanted to see how simply they could be formed, by using only circles and triangles. We experimented with how the simple forms could be put together to express different feelings or situations. These first experiments were further developed for the visual communication for and in our second exhibition in ROM8 in January 2014 (the first exhibition was simpler and more informal). The projects symbol/logo was also made for the exhibition, symbolizing dialogue.
The Pictogram app
Could simple pictographic forms be put together; physically with cut out forms or develped in an application? Could we develop pictographic tools that would help create dialogue with our target group? After testing with laser-cut figures it became clear that the forms were superbly abstract and flexible to create forms and pictures for all possible motives, but for the users they were too abstract to relate to.
The idea for an application was inspired by Lingua Digitalis app where you could draw or adjust your own pictograms.13 The Lingua Digitalis app has excellent instructions for making the pictograms in a vector program as Illustrator, with help from Fredrik Salhus at KHiB we experimented with an interactive app where the drawing was not dependent on other vector programs, but a drawing program where size regulation, duplication, modulation and rotation of the basic figures was possible. We stopped further development of the app as it became too complicated to use.
Associate Professor in form, Charles Michalsen, was active taking part in with the second exhibition in ROM8 in January 2014. One of his installations consisted of simply cut anatomical parts when put together they could create a pictogram figure that was then projected on a wall by an overhead. The parts were movable so different poses were possible. This installation was so simple and yet engaged the public so well that it has inspired our further development of pictograms in the project.
Henry Dreyfus Associates book «The measure of Man & Woman» (Dreyfoss 2002) contained 200 anthropometric drawings/pictograms (orginally from 1953) that are «detailed and easy-to-use diagrams of human dimensions ... Whether male or female, young or old, large or small (Dreyfoss 2002:1)». This data for designers and architects on the size of the body and its components has been and inspiration for many pictogram designers, and us. The U.S. Department of Transport DOT pictograms commissioned by AIGA (The American Institute of Graphic Arts) paid attention to the Dreyfus standards as well as being inspired by Otl Aicher’s geometrically styled and stylish pictograms designed for the 1972 Munich Olympics, and simplifed the pictograms in 1974. But standards change as technology changes, Susan Kare’s user interface graphics and fonts for the Apple Macintosh from the 1980s use pixels as a grid to create amongst other things the dreaded bomb and Clarus the cowdog. In the visible development of our projects pictograms we have used Kinect technology as a basis for the pictogram design. 14 The Kinect technology enables body movement mapping, and then we use the technologies mapping points to create and define the joints, flexibility and complexity of our pictograms. We have experimented with laser cut figures to test how to make a pictogram «doll». We tested how complex or simple the figures should be made and yet still express body language. Through four different experiments the figures became more and more simplified, from neck, shoulders, arms, elbows, hands, hips, legs, knees and feet joints, 16 joints in all, we cut the number of joints to ten, retaining flexibility and expressiveness but to ease the flimsiness when forming the figures to tell stories. When testing these figures in a toolbox with other support pictograms for telling stories, houses, thoughts and so on we discovered that the support pictograms were actually the most important for telling complex stories.
To enable people with challenges to be heard and to help fight stigmatism we have developed a ‘PictoBooth’ encouraging people to make their own pictograms. The PictoBooth is the equivalent of a Photo Booth, but using Kinect technology; your body language and gestures are registered and translated into real live pictograms. With a countdown time of five seconds you can freeze your own pictogram with a chosen title and the PictoBooth automatically prints a copy for you.
The PictoBooth is portable enabling us to be able to visit people, if we have to travel to various organizations or meeting points, or even on the street. The PictoBooth represents a method for encouraging user participation; it offers feedback. It gives the user visual response to their body and gestures enabling them to, more easily, visualise their stories and this could make them more willing to share their experiences with us. The PictoBooth version two includes automatic printing or transfer to email or mms, and a Facebook/Instagram/blog link updating pictograms. This will make the pictograms instantly available to the users and a broader audience if they want to (this is a personal choice). The hope is that this will be a way of empowering the users.
Stories from strangers
In 2014 we arranged workshops and the earlier mentioned exhibition i the gallery ROM8 in Bergen. In five days, and through five different workshops, the ambition was to make hundred pictograms expressing a challenging every day life. From these events we learned that it feels much more balanced to ask people to contribute in the project, when we are able to give something back, in this case invite them to feel welcome in our exhibition space. By the help of post cards, poetry, dance and clay modelling we invited people to reflect on challenges you might meet in life and stories you carry woth you. We presented the PictoBooth based on Kinect technology, encouraging people to make their own pictograms. Participants were invited to an event where a professional dancer translated the descriptions of their experiences into body language. We understood that transformation by a third part gave us a much richer material to work on. It made a huge difference to use visuals and performance as an icebreaker to engage people. We were surprised how easy people shared stories. In some cases it was difficult to end the conversation.
In the autumn the same year the Bergen Academy of Art and Design arranged Visibility, an international illustration venue. As part of the conference, and together with Migrantas, we invited the audience and other interested to a workshop. Migrantas are working with public urban spaces as their platform, and aims to make visible the thoughts and feelings of those who have left their own country and now live in a new one, using pictograms as a visual language of migrants.
«Their simple, universally understandable images stir emotions: people from different backgrounds recognize themselves in the representations, while others gain new insights or modify their own perspectives». 15
All Migrantas’ projects are based upon workshops, and the process is described on their webpage: After analysis of all the drawings from different workshops, «Migrantas culls key elements and common themes from the drawings and translates these motifs visually and artistically into pictograms - a visual language and a language accessible to everyone. [...]
All Migrantas projects end with an exhibition. The participants now see their drawings presented in public and experience public recognition of their voices and social participation». While Migrantas use standard paper in the format A4, we asked the public to draw challenges on paper shaped as pictograms. The participants mostly were illustrators and design students, and this influenced the project and brought us many interesting illustrations. We could also see that the shape did influence the drawings, and that the heads were often used to express thoughts, whilst the body-shape expressed physical circumstances and feelings. We attained new and broad insight into what people themselves defined as challenges. Some of the pictograms communicated feelings, like loneliness, and these have been developed further as separate pictograms. The result was exhibited in the gallery ROM8, together with Migrantas pictograms.
Both the workshop at the Visibility venue and the exhibition in ROM8 involving the dancer and others contributors, convinced us that a pictogram language had a great potential for creating dialogue, but we still had no clear idea of what new tools could be created to appeal to a broader audience. We continued to develop the PictoBooth and we experimented with a PictoSwipe and Laser-cut figures for dialogue.
Making your life visible
Two separate occurances, followed up by workshops with Arna Active and Vartun care and housing community, were a breakthrough for the project. This breakthrough changed our plans to present the project in an exhibition in Oslo in December 2015. Ruth Marie Donovan contacted Bergen Academy of Art and Design on behalf of Bergen clinics, and invited us to contribute at a conference about drug related care.16 We met representatives from the Bergen Clinics, Bjørn Tormod Ringdal, Parents Against Substance Abuse, Inga Blaha, Arna Active17, Jan Runar Trandal, representive for LAR-users18 / Vartun care and housing community, Ole Jørgen Lygren and ambulance driver and student Jari Smedstad to discuss the possibility to test pictographic tools. In this meeting one of the participants showed us a book, a fiction book, with personal photos and notes added. This book was made as a gift for a child, who’s mother was deceased. The book was made to help the child remember her/his mother and to be aware of her positive qualities. In this meeting we received feedback that it was important to develop a visual language to invite to dialogue. Some had experienced how spoken or written language could exclude. Drug users did not always understand formal bureaucratic language. They needed better tools for communicating what to do in practical situations, for example when someone became ill and had to call for ambulance or use emergency services. Dignity and respect was also most important; to be able to feel equal and competent.
After the meeting we kept thinking of the book, and how the help of an already existing story could tell someone’s life story. You can understand something about another person by discussing books. Why this book? Who introduced you to it? When? What sentences are most important for you? We decided to investigate how books, how existing stories, could be used as a starting point for life story interviews. But do drug addicts read books? This question was raised when we developed a prototype for «book extending equipment». We wanted to make an exhibition at the conference, «The books we read». By this we wanted to challenged the stereotype that may exist of drug addicts, that they don´t read, or at least don´t read complicated books. By the help of bookmarks with text like «Here I did laugh», «Here I did cry», «I recommend you to read this sentence» and so one. We wanted to add new layers to the stories. We also made bindings with pictograms to map out the readers life story, and student Kristian Dahle Sjåstad illustrated tableclothes to be used as tool for conversation. By discussing and testing the idea we did find out that you can learn much about another person by having a conversation about the books they have read. Some are fascinated by the act of dreaming, others by emperors and historical travellers like Vasco da Gama. You very soon get personal, because you suddenly talks about feelings, like being lonely, depressed, confused. This might be a challenge. You could be too personal too soon. One participant didn´t read books, but cartoons. For us this was no problem, but if you don´t read books, this workshop might make you feel outside. Another participant sent us an sms that he was not able to read the book once again, and because of this he couldn´t add bookmarks. He felt sorry. Homework is not for everyone. We experienced that the book project could make the participants loose self-confidence, the opposite of our intention. We left the idea behind, but brought with us the poetry.
While working with making physical, moveable pictograms, we one day putt a pictogram in front of the computer. The intention was to make it easy for the pictogram man to stand on his own. Looking at this scene, a physical pictogram in front of a digital screen, made us see the possibilities of combining of this two worlds. This was the starting point of developing a small mobile theatre, built around an iPad. The first time we tested a very simple prototype at Vartun, one of the participants told us how he had to present his life story over and over again to different social workers. We saw the need for a tool that not only could be used in conversations about difficult subjects, but also make long lasting illustrations. The theatre-scene was discussed and tested with different groups of people with challenges and social workers, and simplified to became an easy, flexible and low cost tool for illustrating and documenting a conversation.
Telling stories when you have (almost) no words to use
We wanted to find out how the prototype worked in conversation with people from different cultures and with challenges with the Norwegian language. We took the toolkit to an event arranged by a local friendship group at Dale in Vaksdal. The intention with the event was to create a meeting place where refugees could meet locals and Norwegian speakers. We settled down with three young men from Syria, who had been living in Norway for a few months. They still had a long way to go in learning Norwegian. We soon understood that a lot of pictograms were missing from our toolkit. But they were easy to add by using paper and scissors. We also searched the web for photos from cities in Syria and locations at Dale, and added new photos. The refugees told about their journey from Syria to Norway, about their education and work, and what they did in their free time. It might be that such strong stories as escape from war, with loss of relatives and friends, should be told the first time in company with psychologists or other professionals. At the time the visualized stories felt to heavy, and we had to turn the conversation in another direction.
We experienced how strong the visual language is, and also that the toolkit sholud be a combination of a finished product and a «do-it-yourself»-concept, if it should work for different groups of people. When the user creates pictogram stories themselves, then conversation also become easier, and the stories come to life.