The Visual Vocabulary of Rosa Douma

We talked with the speaker of the last session of the Visual Thinking School Colombia. Rosa Douma told us about her thesis project, The Visual Vocabulary, work with which she wanted  to make a reflection about how concepts are drawn from different contexts.
Visual Thinking School Colombia: what is visual vocabulary?

Rosa Douma: I would describe it as the ability of people to interpret, evaluate, and infer meaning from information presented in the form of an image.

In order to understand visual vocabulary, I asked several persons from different backgrounds to draw various concepts.  A selection of the collection of drawings is combined into a playful book.

VTS Colombia: Why do you think is important and useful to build a visual vocabulary?

RD: I think Visual vocabulary is a subject of deep concern to all designers, visual artists or anyone working with images.

The intention of my thesis was to bring light to the phenomenon of visual perception, so that people working with images,may use an objective model of reference that differentiates laws, where they exist, (or even confront these) and identifies where there are no laws. I discovered that these ‘laws’ are different for each society, culture or group of people.

VTS Colombia: In your Project you asked people to draw  how they relate to different concepts. How often do you find similar drawings? Does the age, profession or gender influence in the posible similarities?

RD: A example of people’s background is men and women on equality. Drawings on equality by women seem to be more related to social issues like for example races and emancipation, than drawings by men.

Visualisations of a lot of concepts show a personal perspective on the subject. An example of this is ideolgy. Most of the drawings were related to communism, the second world war, the seventies, the no future generation, or the islamic state.

VTS Colombia: Now that you have build the Visual Vocabulary, what are you planing to do with it? What different uses does it have?

RD: I am in contact with people who are interested in using my project in the fields of science and psychology. I am also in contact with a institute who whats to use it to communicate with disabled people.  We will see  what will  happen, I a not sure about working with scientists. For me it feels too much like an art project, I dont want to loose the intuitive and personal aspects of this project, which make it strong.

Personally I think it could also be interesting to use Visual Vocabulary in situations where people do not speak the same language. On art school, we also did a project for doctors without borders. We had to make a visual manual of a medical tool. We could only instruct people how to use this tool by showing them images.  I like this way of working, because of in this case a graphic designer can really make a difference.

For me as a designer, it will always be useful to keep on studying this subject. I believe it is the privilege of the graphic designer to be the mediator between the message and the public. And to do this in a proper way, a graphic designer should speak the visual language of the public. The graphic designer’s voice need not merely be the record of messages, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help messages endure and prevail.

VTS Colombia: Having a visual vocabulary helps in the development of visual thinking? Do you think these are complementary tools?

RD: Yes, I am sure of that. I am also giving workshops, and I see it happening already.  But what I also find interesting is the fact that people seem to be really dependent on their language in visual thinking: I wondered what people would draw if I would instruct them to draw a concept that they would not know. Therefore, I have been searching in the Dutch dictionary for unknown words. When visualizing an unknown word, people can only relate to the speech sound of the word..

A example of this is ‘nanisme’ This means dwarfism. Some people figured out that it has to do something with being small, probably because of they knew the word ‘nano’. I also have a lot of other examples of this phenomeon.  Looking at this part of my research, I  can conclude that we are really dependent on the speech sound of words and language in visualizing new and unknown words.


VTS Colombia: Do you think that by using these  tools we are going back by comunicating like we did through hieroglyphics?

RD: People already do by using existing symbols and signs. I can conclude that these exisiting signs play a big part in the public’s ability to communicate visually. But these existing signs can still be used and iterprented in so many ways. For example, the peace sign from the 70’s has been used by people to visualize various things like freedom, democracy, ideology, tolerance, progressiveness and happiness.

Other populair or overused existing signs were hearts, arrows, light bulbs, gender signs, euro signs, and signs that represent religions. It seems like existing signs do not always represent the same thing in everyone’s personal visual vocabulary.

VTS Colombia: Wich were your references or inspirations for this Project?

RD: Some of my teachers: Gert Dumbar and Max Kisman and Dirk Vis. In art history class I also learned about Otto Neurath, who had the ideal of creating a visual language. During the 1930s, he began promoting ‘Isotype’ as an International Picture Language. I learned that a objective visual language cannot work for the whole world, but still I wanted to find out more about visual languages. I decided to dive into the subjectiveness of visual language. Therefore, I needed the input of the world around me.

VTS Colombia: This question is from our previous speaker Mathieu Spencer from Rock your Cortex:

 What do you think about making mistakes? Are mistakes part of the process of  visual thinking?

RD: On art school, I learned that making mistakes is the best thing you can do, when you are designing or developing something. Especially when your are a art student. Now that I am not a art student anymore, but a designer, I hope I will never be afraid of making mistakes.

VTS Colombia: What  would you ask to the next speaker that the Visual Thinking School Colombia interview?

RD: Do you consider visual thinking as an universal way of thinking?

The Visual Vocabulary of Rosa Douma

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