This entry is part 8 of 43 in the series Words

We all know what cryptography is:

cryp·tog·ra·phy, n.
1.    the science or study of the techniques of secret writing, esp. code and cipher systems, methods, and the like. Cf. cryptanalysis (def. 2).
2.    the procedures, processes, methods, etc., of making and using secret writing, as codes or ciphers.
3.    anything written in a secret code, cipher, or the like.
[1635–45; CRYPTO- + -GRAPHY]

But do you know what anticryptography is?

In its most glamorous guise, it is the art and science of designing easy-to-understand messages to send into space for alien civilizations to read. More mundanely, it is the art and science of designing messages, usually visual, that may be easily interpreted by those of widely-varying language and culture.

Graphic designers have been practicing anticryptography for a long time, designing easy-to-understand signs. The idea of standard signs, with similar shapes and forms, appears multiple times – most recently and obviously in the icons developed for the Olympics, and in the set of 50 standard transportation-oriented signs developed by AIGA.

A feature of many of these icons is the stick figure, an iconic representation of a person. These stick figures, as with the other icons mentioned above, were developed by a gradual process of abstraction and simplification (discussed in Computers in the ED 3: Design Integrity, Simplicity and Abstraction). Indeed, if you look at the work of Gerd Arntz, you will see an intermediate state in the evolution of the stick figure.

Many independent designers have taken these ideas further, and iconic warning signs, often with stick figures, are found all over the place. One website is devoted to cellphone-camera shots of different stick-figure warning icons.

Anticryptography is art as well as science, so one finds people being playful with stick figures; the Museum of Modern Art even has an animated pictogram exit sign:

But probably the most entertaining, while still showing how stick figures can get across a message, is Safety at Work, from stickpage:

So, you ask, what does this fascinating stuff have to do with computing, medicine, or the ED? Simple. Many programs have icons, as discussed in Computers in the ED 9: Icons, Pegagogic Vectors, and Posture. And, as discussed in that post, people simply can’t recognize what most of these icons represent. Computer icon designers work very hard to make their (little tiny) icons look very much like a printer, or clipboard, rather than using abstraction and simplicity to design something like some of the stick-figure pictograms described in this post. Yes, the resolution of those little computer-screen icons place a major constraint on the design of computer icons – but still, usable icons need to be simpler and more abstracted. Such simple, abstracted icons will also, by providing simple lines and angles, allow preattentive processing (discussed in Computers in the ED 8: Performance, Data Pixels, Location, and Preattentive Attributes), making recognition faster and less error-prone.

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This entry was posted by kconover on Sunday, February 28th, 2010 at 6:06 pm and is filed under Tutorials . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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