Divine codes

I cannot be the only person who screams faintly whenever he reads one of those lazy bits of journalism including the words ‘fast-forward’ and ‘rewind’ as a way to denote passing time. These are generally written by middle-aged men who think it makes them sound faintly hip. No – it just demonstrates that they are of the VHS generation.

But the symbols have endured. The little triangular arrows – one for ‘play’, two for, ahem, ‘fast-forward’ and ‘rewind’, plus the associated ‘pause’ and ‘stop’ marks – have become universally understood. What started out as a way to operate early electronic products based on magnetic tape has now become a lingua franca for recording and playback devices of all kinds.

There are other examples, such as the vertically pointing arrow meaning ‘straight ahead’. This is not as obvious as it seems. At the dawn of signage the arrow symbol itself was unknown. A drawing of a pointing finger sufficed for most of history, with arrows only coming in around the start of the 20th century. As you see them in the original tilework of London Underground stations, they still bear a resemblance to real arrows as you might shoot them from a bow, complete with stylised tail-feathers.

Denoting left and right with arrows is easy. But straight ahead? There’s the danger that people might think you want them to ascend vertically. Really, there was a time when that would have been the case. Traditional fingerposts at road junctions pointed the right way, of course (each arm of the signpost representing a pointing human arm). But that was no use at speed. At a crossroads, you can’t see the sign pointing away from you. At a motorway junction, you have to be able to. So some early motorway signs tried using perspective, sothat the vertical arrows appeared to be tilting slightly forwards. But people got used to the idea that the straight-up arrow means ‘proceed horizontally, forwards’.

The more you think about it, the odder that is. In France, they still prefer angled horizontal arrow signs. Besides, how do you now indicate that you really do want someone to proceed vertically, such as up a particular escalator round a corner? The norm is an arrow angled upwards at 45 degrees. We have no problem with that. But our ancestors would not have understood these weird symbols, which resemble neither pointing fingers nor real arrows, but something that has evolved from both.

There are other symbols, however, which we do not really understand, but are happy with anyway. Take barcodes. They come in four main types, we all know what they are and what they do, but we cannot read the information they contain. Only a scanning device can do that. Nonetheless, we are comfortable with them. Artists love them. I have even seen a barcode tattoo.

And now we are told that barcodes are ancient optical technology and that they will be replaced with ingenious little dot-like things called ‘bokodes’ which will somehow radiate the information they contain. That’s fine, but what do they look like? Nothing. Bokodes are still optical, but have no real visible presence.

This is great news for graphic designers, who will no longer have to work round ugly barcodes on packaging and publications. But I think we’re going to miss them. That’s how attached we get to the symbols of our daily lives. These marks, odd though it may seem, are a bit like pets.

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  • Douglas Rose November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    All interesting stuff. One other early form of communicating where one was on the Underground was introduced in 1906 – well before the arrows to which you refer. Forty-six stations had their own distinctive, repeating colour tile patterns along the entire length of the platform walls. Some six million tiles were used. This was also the first true corporate identity on the then not formed ‘Underground’ and also an elaborate signage system, allegedly for those who could not read name boards (reasonably common at the time).

    I am not sure if you have come across my book on this, but you might like to visit me at: http://www.dougrose.co.uk. If you like I can send you a copy for review.

    By the way, I also agree whole-heartedly about having to work round barcodes on covers. For years I tried to subdue them visibly (with an added apology) and still make them work. I did, and they did too.

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