Follow the arrows

When you walk around a city where a different alphabet is in use, to understand  from a semantical point of view the pieces of written communication is almost impossible. In every poster, signal or advice of every kind, the layer of meaning is completely excluded when you try to decipher the intriguing Greek glyphs.

This is what happened during my five days walking around Athens: between ancient temples and graffiti (one of the many outputs of the recent economic crisis), all written communication was likely mute. I was left free to interpretate the pure visual content: glyphs, colors, shapes, symbols. Even the more objective and practical tools in communication, like the ones used to point to a specific direction, become subjective and undefined.

These glyphs and symbols come in various sizes and colors, they are usually hand-written or badly printed and are a vital part of the life in the streets of Athens. There is no global identity for the city, but everything has its unique format, support, font and symbols. Arrows of different shapes and colors drive you through the paths of the different neighborhoods and that’s what makes them efficient and recognizable by locals, in contrast with other famous European capitals’ city branding.

When meaning is removed from the relation between medium and user, those same arrows bring you to unknown places that can only be imagined. As Panos Vassiliou from Parachute Type Foundry said, typography is about research, science and psychology and here the case is when the last one is tangible as its most. Feelings of confusion and being lost are replaced by personal interpretations only based on the emotional response to the visual content.

Most of the time these artworks are practical and spontaneous applications by people with no education in graphic design, but they address everybody who walks on the streets. It’s design from the people to the people. The way it communicates is not affected by stylistic egocentrism and self-reference within the artistic world.

Sometimes in the graphic design environment we forget to relate to the people that walks on the street in our blind search for stylistic recognition. Sometimes we want to amaze the user, make it think “I’ve never seen it before” and walk away, rather than bring curiosity and interaction to the design work, pushing the user to know more and reflect on what it is looking at. I’m not saying in any way that the first approach is bad and the second one is good: an ideal visual project should include both approaches in a unique and coherent work. But when you look at the graphic design production in this new millennium, where every tool and technology is accessible by everybody, the first option always seems the easiest and the most profitable. You don’t need to wonder what you want to say, what would be the best way to say it and how the user could perceive it.

Sometimes we simply forget the difference between looking and watching, but this investigation starts with the designer, not the consumer. Can design change the world? That’s a hard one. Can design pollute more the already saturated pit of visual elements that we encounter every day? Yes, definitely.