Theory (Can Typography become a globally universal language?)

I have now completed my essay and proposal to a higher quality than my other previous theory work . During this semester I have greatly improved in this area of the course as I have researched into each aspect of my essay far greater than before, used a much more professional vocabulary  (Can Typography become a globally universal language?) and backed up each sentence as well.  Once I have handed them in I will start to mind map ideas for my practical project. Below you can find my proposal and Essay……..

Can Typography Become a Globally Universal Language? (Proposal)


Within this essay one will be exploring if typography can become a globally universal language. Cultures are merging together as travel and communication between cultures has significantly increased with the development of technology and transport. (Myung-Gun Choo, 1996) Therefore is there a need for one method of communicating to a global audience which every nationality can understand. (Myung-Gun Choo, 1996)  Areas which shall be covered include the effects a universal language would have on the world and on traditional cultures, the understanding of communicating through type and image, the understanding of what universal means, the positive and negatives of this could have on respective social structures, the definition of communication, how typography has developed through history and examples of different typography such as Herbert Bayer’s Universal alphabet, pictographic fonts such as Wingdings and popular type such as Helvetica.


Research Methodology

This will be predominantly secondary accompanied by a questionnaire which has gathered a range of opinions on how a globally universal type could affect design, how it could affect cultural traditions and how effective it might be. Analysis of this shows 70% out of 20 people surveyed, say typography would not work as a globally universal language, 67% say a universal type face would have a negative effect on graphic design as it would restrict creativity and 80% say that a universal language would greatly affect cultural traditions across the world. A five point plan has also been undertaken to coordinate research into 5 main areas which consists of; typography, communication, pictographic fronts, semiotics and cultures.




Literature Review


Malcolm Barnard, (2005) Graphic Design as Communication, Routledge – definition of graphic design ‘graphic design is a means of communication’ (Barnard, 2005, p 18), why identity is important to every aspect of design, why design should be seen as a language instead of a method and the ways in which it affects or even changes social and cultural identities. (Barnard, 2005) Therefore this will inform one regarding how design can communicate to a globally universal audience and by which means this may be achieved


David Crow, (2003) Visible Signs, AVA publishing – Consists of an in depth look at the visual language and semiotic figure heads Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce. Understanding Semiotics is a vital part of this essay. ‘Fundamental elements that make up a sign are the signifier and the signified.’ (Crow, 2003, p 14)  Understanding how type, alphabets and images effectively communicate to a target audience or wider culture will help to explore if a universal type could be plausible. An alphabet is a graphic system used to communicate to the viewer. Each character within this is based on semiotics as each letter is essentially a sign. (David Crow, 2003)


Jonathan Baldwin and Lucienne Roberts, (2006) Visual Communication, AVA publishing –

Explores communication as a process in graphic design and problem solving, ‘There are three levels of problems which occur during communication, technical, semantic and effectiveness.’ (Baldwin & Roberts, 2006, p 23), definitions of visual communication in relation to a range of different meanings of culture. There is exploration of the process of creating typefaces with the consideration of the work of key practitioners such as Neville Brody, how design can be portrayed as being political, definition of identity and how to appeal to mass cultures. (Baldwin & Roberts, 2006) This will help one to explore the meanings of culture and identity and ways in which design is seen to other cultures globally.


Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne, (2012) 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design, Laurence King Publishers- information about different typography methods and designs; traditional and digital, how type can be used with or as an image and a short history on the development and evolution of typography. These will in turn help one to explore typography movements and cultural type designs.


Chris Rodrigues and Chris Garratt, (2001) Modernism a Graphic Guide, Icon Books – Explain the meaning of modernism, history of the art movement, what are the role of modernism and the relation of modernism to other parts of culture. This in turn will help one to explore modernism in more depth and explain how the movement relates back to a universal art style.


Simon Garfield, (2010) Just My Type, Profile Books –This resource helps to define what typography is, explore a range of different type faces and the designers behind them such as Gill Sans by Eric Gill. It attempts to develop an understanding of how typography is used to communicate in a range of alternative contexts.


Steven Heller and Lita Talarico, (2011) Typography Sketch Books, Thames and Hudson – A look into how typographers work, how to design a new typefaces and how typography works with images. Therefore this will help one to consider how designers work when creating typography and the factors concerned in the process of how to create a universal typeface.



John Holbo, (2009), Typocalyse Now? The Legacy of Jan Tschichold, [online] Available at  [Accessed 24 August 2013] – History of Jan Tschichold design career, his role in modernism, how he developed and created the universal type face and notions of universal solutions to design problems.  Also how a less stylistically driven font is more likely to be able to communicate far greater to a wider audience. This will help one to explore how typography has been created to be used universally, and as a short history of modernism.


Daniel Chandler, (2013) Semiotics for Beginners, [online] Available at [Accessed 27 September 2013] – Contains a simple explanation regarding how semiotics work and the meaning of them. One will use this to explore how semiotics is important to type and language, how signs are universal and the understanding of semiotics.


Encyclopedia Iranica, (2012) Ideographic Writing, [online] Available at [Accessed 20 September 2013] – The resource will help one to understand what a picto type face is, how the fonts work and communicate with a viewer and the terminology and conventions of Ideographic writing.






This will prove to be compelling issues as cultures from all over the world are merging together. Therefore the problem of communicating to such diverse cultures needs to be addressed. Images can be understood by any culture. Therefore typography may eventually become redundant or even turn to image based designs such as hieroglyphs which Ancient Egyptians used. Designers should therefore become more aware of the effectiveness of one’s means of communication through the use of type within graphic design.















































Baldwin J and Roberts L (2006) Visual Communication, AVA publishing


Barnard M. (2005) Graphic Design as Communication, Routledge

Simon Garfield, (2010) Just My Type, Profile Books


Crow D, (2003) Visible Signs, AVA publishing

Crow D, (2006) Left to Right: The Cultural Shift from Words to Pictures,

AVA publishing



Heller S. and Ballance G. (2001) Graphic Design History, Allworth


Heller S. & Vienne V.(2012) 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design, Laurence King Publishers


Heller S. and  Talarico L (2011) Typography Sketch Books, Thames and Hudson


Rodrigues C & C Garratt, (2001) Modernism a Graphic Guide, Icon Books







Chandler D. (2013) Semiotics for Beginners, [online] Available at [Accessed 27 September 2013]


Choo M. (1996) The Need For a Universal Language

and Methods of Its Creation as

Suggested by Hangul [online] Available at [Accessed 3 October 2013]


Encyclopedia Iranica, (2012) Ideographic Writing, [online] Available at [Accessed 20 September 2013]


Holbo J. (2009), Typocalyse Now? The Legacy of Jan Tschichold, [online] Available at  [Accessed 24 August 2013]






Can Typography Become a Globally Universal Language?

Within this essay one will be exploring if typography can become a globally universal language. Areas to be covered include the definitions of type, ideograms, isotype and pictograms, how type is used to communicate visually as well as verbally, the typography of different cultures and the relationship type has with language. Furthermore, how one communicates, the definitions of graphic design in typographic terms, how colour can be used to emphasis a message within a font, and understanding the meaning of semiotics. Also the effects a universal type face could have on traditional cultures on a global scale. For example would the typographic languages of a culture be lost if a universal type was introduced.  One will also consider the history and development of type and the positives and negatives of a universal font.

The definition of Typography in the English Oxford Dictionary is “the art or practice of printing” or ‘”the style or appearance of printed matter” (Hawkins, 1983, p 734.). Typography is used every day for communicating over vast distances or to convey a message or meaning in a piece of graphic design or even to advertise a product to a potential customer. “There are more than 100,000 fonts in the world” (Garfield, 2011, p14).  All have unique elements within each letter form to distinguish one font from another and one language from another. Such as Georgia, Verdana, Gill Sans, Helvetica, Wingdings and Arial. A font does not have to consist of actual letters. Wingding for example uses a large mix of simple signs within its alphabet; these could be seen as a form of semiotics which relates to Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce’s theories of signs. (Crow, 2003)  However to understand how to use a font such as this, one needs to learn the meanings of each sign within its alphabet. (Garfield, 2011)  Typography therefore can be seen as a highly popular method of communicating digitally or via hand generated means, which have evolved over centuries of experimentation and creativity. “Type faces are now over 560 years old” (Garfield, 2011, p15). This in turn means that it is becoming increasingly harder to create a new unique font that has not been created already. In wider graphic design terms typography is an essential resource as nearly all designs consist of it. “Just as glass, stone, steel and other materials are employed by architects” (Lupton, 2010, p13). Type is used to create visually stimulating designs which are created to communicate a certain message to the viewer.  One can design a type face which is highly illustrative yet still be legible to a viewer or user.  (Lupton, 2010) Originally words were created from the gestures of the human body when one spoke or expressed oneself. This could also be seen as an early form of sign language. Now typography “is manufactured images designed for infinite repetition…The history of typography reflects a continual tension between the hand and the machine” (Lupton, 2010, p13). One might argue hand rendered fonts have far greater movement and energy, and capture the aura of the designer and their thoughts and feelings at the time. (Garfield, 2011) Walter Benjamin cites, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, it unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (, 2005) [Online]. Benjamin therefore is challenging how reproduced artwork cannot keep hold of the artist’s captured aura that is found within the original design. A mass reproduced piece of art cannot portray the same feelings or the aura of the artist the way the original one does as it loses its aura during the reproduction process. Some might feel digitized fonts are far crisper, cleaner and of far higher quality in appearance. As well as being far easier and quicker to mass produce than traditional hand drawn designs which can take many days or even years to perfect. (Lupton, 2010)  However this could in turn make them seem cold and empty as technology removes the feelings or aura of the designer from the typeface, which leaves the designs feeling empty and hollow. This creates a design or typeface that is without a soul or heart. (, 2005) [Online] Therefore there has been and still is a constant tension between the two design methods. As technology progresses digital art is become the preferred leading media in all forms of art, which in turn may have a negative impact on the aura of an artist as a computer cannot capture the same aura a hand rendered design can. (Lupton, 2010) A union between digital and traditional typographic methods could be the ideal process to be used to create a universal type face which still keeps the aura of the artist within each sign or symbol but is still of a professionally high quality. (Lupton, 2010)  Whilst designing a universal font one would need to be aware of reluctant methods used in the creation of the font generally. A hand rendered font might show more emotion and capture the aura of the designer in relation to meanings of a symbol, sign or letter, for example with the uses of pen strokes. However a digital font would be far easier to reproduce on a mass scale with higher quality imagery produced in the process. (Garfield, 2011)

Pictograms on the other hand have been around far longer than traditional typography. A pictogram is an image or symbol which represents a “concept, activity, place or event by illustrations” (, 2013) [Online]. It is a form of writing where ideas are represented through drawings or symbols rather than letter forms in the conventional western sense. This form of written language was used by ancient cultures across the whole world from nine thousand BC and started to evolve into a logographic written font from around five thousand BC. ( [Online] The aura of the designer would still be visible in this method as all designs are made from hand rendered illustrations or images. Pictograms are still used today as a way of communicating through written forms in “Africa, The Americas, and Oceania, and often take the form of simple symbols in most contemporary cultures” (, 2013) [Online]. One is surrounded by pictograms constantly throughout a day. For example on signs, product packaging or even the applications one finds on an electronic device can be seen as a form of a pictogram based language which all users can understand without the need of a secondary language to accompany it. (, 2013) [Online] A pictogram based language might therefore work effectively as a universal means of communication. It is a form of communication all cultures can easily understand, with little call for the knowledge required to understand other forms of communication or the need of a secondary language to underpin it. However every culture would need to agree on the meanings and understandings of each symbol or image based letter. If not, confusion and misinterpretation of each picture or symbol may occur. The semiotics of a pictogram language would therefore need to be agreed upon. (Crow, 2003)

Similarly an ideogram or ideograph is “a graphical symbol that represents an idea rather than a group of letters” (, 2013) [Online]. Road or airport signs are an example of this as each sign is meant to communicate an idea or understanding in an image based form instead of communicating with the use of a word or letter. (, 2013) [Online] It could therefore be argued a universal type based on ideograms could work far more effectively than a written letter based language, as an ideogram is potentially multi-cultural, because it is a simpler form of language that can be understood easier with similarities with pictograms. “The term ideogram is commonly used to describe logographic writing systems such as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters” (, 2013) [Online]. Chinese and Japanese type can be seen as symbols that represent an object or word or even a sentence. One symbol can be interpreted to have a far larger range of meanings than those of traditional western languages. This typographic approach is sometimes referred to as ‘Square-Block Characters’ as each letter consist of a more or less geometric square within which forms are created. (, 2013) [Online] Restricting the area one can design typography in could help to develop a universal language that is far more unique and standardised in form and shape.

Egyptian hieroglyphs are made from a collection of “logographic, alphabetic, and ideographic elements” which resemble simple symbols (, 2013) [Online]. Hieroglyphs are mainly figurative based forms such as representations of humans, natural forms or natural objects. (, 2013) [Online] These were used to communicate a narrative or message to the viewer in a highly illustrative yet simple means of communication. Vibrant colours were also used with the hieroglyph designs which could in turn affect the meaning of each symbol. Egyptian hieroglyphs also relate to pictograms and illustrative based alphabetical fonts. The human or natural forms used have a meaningful context within each symbol or sign. (, 2013) [Online]  The use of an ideographic font in a universal typeface might portray the meaning of each image far more effectively to a wider range of nationalities than if it was text based and at a greater speed and fluidity.


One of the earliest forms of communicating with picto or illustrative forms is cave paintings created forty thousand years ago, which depict the hunting of animals or major events associated with a particular group or tribe. (, 2013) [Online] These images still hold the aura of the artists as each illustrative form was created by the use of powdered rock spread with a hand or finger across a wall. Therefore these images still hold the emotion and movement of the designer. (, 2005) [Online] A pivotal moment in typographic design was when Johannes Gutenberg of Germany created moveable type in the early fifteenth century. “Being able to create multiple copies had a massive impact upon mass production capabilities and circulations of texts, therefore this had a significant influence upon education” (Lupton, 2010, p13). Before Gutenberg’s invention all books were created by hand; this could take many days, months or even years of work to complete. “In fifteenth-century Italy, humanist writers and scholars rejected gothic scripts in favour of the lettera anitica” (Lupton, 2010, p15). This was a traditional method of writing by hand instead of using movable type and a printing press. Numerous fonts still used today in digital form originated from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, such as “Gothic, Garamond, Bembo, Palantino and Jenson typefaces” (Lupton, 2010, p15). These are also still popular for use within graphic design to this day.

An isotype language is relevant to these two forms of writing and a universal typographical language as the system uses “simplified pictures to convey social and economic information to a general public” (Margolin, 1989, p145). Isotype was created by a Viennese philosopher and social scientist Otto Neurath. “Neurath believed that language is the medium of all knowledge: empirical facts are only available to the human mind through symbols” (Margolin, 1989, p145).  This is a popular form of logical positivism as an “Isotype character is positive because, as a picture, it claims a base observation… It is logical because it concentrates experienced detail into a schematic, repeatable sign” (Margolin, 1989, p147).

One positive aspect of an isotype based language is that each letter is created from a simple image or symbol and therefore anyone can learn the meaning of it in time. A symbol or image is also far easier to remember than a set of letters. (, 2013) [Online]  For example the simple images for public toilets are used globally across many cultures where all viewers can easily understand these images in a heartbeat. (Crow, 2003) This therefore can be seen as a form of a globally universal language that is highly effective. An important aspect of any universal type is how people with disabilities can use it. If disabled users and viewers cannot understand it then it cannot be truly universal in any sense.  As an Isotype font is image based, a means of being able to use it when one is blind would need to be addressed as one would not be able to decipher the symbols when one cannot see. (, 2013) [Online] “Braille is a system of touch reading and writing for blind persons in which raised dots represent the letters of the alphabet” (, 2013) [Online]. Braille is read by using one’s index finger to feel the raised dots on a page that create an image, symbol or letter within the reader’s mind. It was originally created for soldiers to communicate after dark as any other form of language would be deciphered and discovered by the opposing force. However a young boy, Luis Braille who lived near Paris, France, was able to adapt it to be used as a means for the blind to read and communicate instead. “Blind eleven years old boy took the secret code devised for the French military and modified it to create the basis for written communication for blind individuals. Louis Braille… spent nine years developing and refining the system of raised dots that has come to be known by his name” (, 2013) [Online]. This means of communication also relates to ideogram fonts as the system uses a “rational sequence of signs devised for the fingertips, rather than imitating signs devised for the eye”  (, 2013) [Online]. Incorporating this into an Isotype based language would provide a means of improving the versatility of that language, and potentially broaden the use of a globally universal language.

Isotype is still a language that is used today to inform certain graphic design practices. For example road signs are a form of isotype design as it does not matter what nationality a viewer is; one can still understand the meaning of a road sign as all designs are the same or share similarities on an international scale. The signs are designed so one can understand each sign whilst travelling at a high speed as well as being able to decipher it at a distance. Also many isotype designs are made up from simplified silhouettes of the human form posing in a way that portrays a meaning or message to a viewer. (Margolin, 1989)  For example a sign which consists of the silhouette of a hand with part of it missing whilst being corroded as a corrosive acidic liquid drips upon it. Neurath’s theories reflect elements commonly found within “avant-garde and post World War 2” art movements. “A scientific approach to the generation of visual forms has led designers to focus on the formal aspects of design” (Margolin, 1989, p145). As an example a designer might treat an “abstract visual pattern as an independent system of communication” (Margolin, 1989, p145). Therefore anything in graphic design could become known as a visual language or alphabet such as a series of shapes or lines. However this needs to be learned and agreed upon as a system, which in turn may need a secondary language also to underpin it. Saussure’s semiotic theory relates to this as each symbol in an alphabet would need a signifier and a signified to complete a meaning. (Crow, 2003)

Comparing an Isotype font to a conventional font may help one to distinguish the effectiveness of an image based typographic language compared with a conventional one. Fonts such as Gill Sans can be used for many contexts and situations. For example it was “adopted by the Church of England, the BBC, the first Penguin book jackets and British Railways (where it was used on everything from timetables to restaurant menus)” (Garfield, 2011, p50). However a conventional font needs to be legible and conform to the nationalities’ alphabet so it would be understandable, readable and usable. Conventional fonts also communicate differently to isotype fonts as one pronounces each letter in the alphabet to create a word or sentence. On the other hand an isotype language uses a single image to represent a set of words, actions or meanings. (Garfield, 2011)

An isotype based font does not need to conform to the traditional alphabet as one simple image can represent a series of words, messages or even a narrative. (Crow, 2003)  This can be interpreted in a mere second; as long as one has an understanding of the meaning. Also a viewer reacts to visual imagery far quicker than a conventional typographic language as one needs to interpret and have existing knowledge of each letter which takes far longer than an image. (Crow, 2003) “Psychologist Albert Mehrabian2 experimented with how quickly one interprets a visual based form of communication to a written one and discovered that, “93% of communication is nonverbal. Studies find that the human brain deciphers image elements simultaneously, while language is decoded in a linear, sequential manner taking more time to process” (, 2013) [Online]. He also stated that one can interpret and understand a visual means of communication “60,000 times faster than text” (, 2013) [Online]. Visual communication speaks to a viewer in two ways, “Cognitively: Graphics Expedite and increase our level of communication. They increase comprehension, recollection, and retention” (, 2013) [Online]. Image based communication helps one to understand a corresponding text and draw a viewer’s eyes across a page far more effectively than standard typography when viewed on its own. (, 2013) [Online]

“Emotionally: pictures enhance or affect emotions and attitudes. They engage our imagination and heighten our creative thinking by stimulating our areas of our brain, which leads to a more profound and accurate comprehension. Emotion influences decision-making” (, 2013) [Online].

One instantly has a feeling or understanding of an image but if it was in typographic forms one would need to have an understating of a language to interpret it and develop a feeling over a certain amount of time “People think using pictures” (, 2013) [online]. John Berger cites, “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” (, 2013) [Online] Therefore one’s understating of an image comes naturally whereas one has to be taught to understand written languages, which could be seen to go against human nature. (, 2013) [Online] A viewer holds on to an image and remembers it far longer than type just as a photograph captures a space in time which can be recalled at anytime; Dr Lynell Burmark suggested…”unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear. Words are processed by our short term memory where we can only retain about 7 bits of information (plus or minus 2)” (, 2013) [Online].  Therefore the meanings of an image based universal typographic language would stay with a user and viewer far more effectively than if it was letter based.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites that an alphabet is a “set of letters or symbols in a fixed order used to represent the basic set of speech sounds of a language” (Hawkins, 1983, p 17). Therefore a pictogram, ideogram or an Isotype type language could be seen as an alphabet as long as the viewer is clear on what the symbols or images mean and the order they are represented. This then could be an ideal way of creating a universal typographical language.  Also a universal alphabet might not need to have as many letters or symbols in it compared to traditional established examples as each symbol can contain more than one meaning or set of words. (Crow, 2003)  However there must be a joint agreement between the users of what each letter or symbol in an alphabet means. If not there could be confusion and misinterpretation of the meanings which would lead to a universal language not being understood and used correctly. (Crow, 2003) Furthermore a universal language based on pictograms or isotypes might affect the creativity and uniqueness of art work, as all designs would be using the same symbolic language. This would dilute the vast range of creativity in art work that exists today. (Crow, 2003)

Communication is clearly a major factor for an effective globally universal typographic language, as it would need to be able to communicate naturally, efficiently, and effectively to a diverse range of audiences from many different cultures. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests “something that communicates information from one person to another, a letter or message, a means of communicating e.g. road, railway, and telephone” (Hawkins, 1983, p 125). Therefore type is a highly important means of communication across a range of distances. “The origin of written language and its offspring, typography, lie in the spoken word… speech preceded writing” (Baines & Haslam, 2002, p12). Speech predates any form of typography as it was one of the first forms of communication that evolved. The earliest forms of visual communication were cave paintings created forty thousand years ago.

Communication can also be achieved through the use of sign language. Sign language is a means for the impaired of hearing to communicate. “There are various theories on how sign language started… however it still remains that no one knows for certain where sign language first originated” (linguistics.byu 1998) [Online]. Sign language could be older than any method of human communication. It has developed differently in different cultures across the world. “There are more than fifty native sign languages” (linguistics.byu 1998) [Online]. For example American Sign Language is vastly different to the English version. “There are hundreds of sign languages that have arisen independently wherever there are a significant number of deaf people together” (linguistics.byu 1998) [Online]. In theory this method of communicating could become globally universal, if everyone agreed on the same meanings for different signs. (linguistics.byu 1998) [Online] However this might affect cultural traditions around the world as all designers would need to conform to the same sign language rules laid out in the universal alphabet, thus depriving graphic designers of the opportunity to create work for their own cultures.

Furthermore sign languages are made from the movement of the human body. Translating this into a written form for distribution could be highly intricate and complicated. However if one used an isotype or pictogram language to portray each movement within sign language it may be a viable source for a globally universal language.


The definition of semiotics or semiology in the Oxford English Dictionary is “the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation” (Hawkins, 1983, p603). Semiotics are relevant to a globally universal typeface, as understanding how type, alphabets and images effectively communicate to a target audience or wider culture will help to explore whether a universal typeface could be plausible. “There are three main parts that form semiotics: the signs themselves, the way they are organised into systems and the context in which they appear” (Crow, 2003, p14).  Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce are the main figureheads of semiotics. “Both were primarily concerned with the structural models of signs and the relationship between the components of the sign” (Crow, 2003, p13-14).

“A sign is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign… The sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign, the sign stands for something, its object” (Saussure, Crow, 2003, p23).

Understanding these components is what helps one to turn a sign or image into a form of communicating a message to a chosen viewer. (Crow, 2003) “Saussure’s model for a sign” consists of two parts which are fundamental to its creation, the ‘signifier’- the form which a sign takes, and the ‘signified’ – the concept it represents. (Chandler, 2013) [Online] For any sign or typeface to work all one needs is for it to be agreed amongst a group of people that one thing will stand for another. Furthermore one sign or symbol could in fact have more than one meaning or use depending on its position within a sign, the angle of it and even the colour that accompanies it; for example a cross could mean a church or it could be the Red Cross ambulance service. (Crow, 2003,) However the agreed meaning of a sign or letter can be completely different to another community of people. Therefore in creating a universal language, the meanings of the letters or words would need to be accepted by all users and cultures on a global scale. A complication which could arise in creating such a language is that some words or images have a completely different relationship to one another depending on the culture an audience is from. “Saussure Specifically concerned himself with phonetic writing, the paradigmatic medium of Western culture, which translates the diverse sound of language into a set of repeatable graphic marks” (Lupton, 2004). He ignored ‘ideographic’ and ‘pictographic’, instead he chose to concentrate on phonetic writing. “Unlike pictographic or ideographic scripts, phonetic writing represents the signifier of language (its material sound) rather than the signified (its conceptual meaning or idea)” (Lupton, 2004).

Peirce designated ‘three categories’ for signs. The first is the icon: “this resembles the sign. A photograph of someone could be described as an iconic sign in that it physically resembles the thing it represents” (Crow, 2003, p31). Words can also be said to be Icons for instance ‘boom’, ‘bang’ or ‘crash’ are onomatopoeic words which are commonly found within graphic novels or narratives. (Crow, 2003) These are used as signs or icons to portray a sound that is happening within a piece of text or graphic novel. (Crow, 2003) Type is the second category: it is a highly versatile means of expressing sounds to a viewer. The Index of a sign consists of the link between the sign and the object. “Smoke is an index of fire and a tail is an index of a dog” (Crow, 2003, p31).  Lastly there is the symbol. A viewer of this must have an understanding of the meaning and context of the symbol otherwise the sign is useless. “The red cross is a symbol that we recognise to mean aid… Letters of the alphabet are symbolic signs whose meanings we have learnt” (Crow, 2003, p31). “Saussure was not interested in index signs; he was primarily concerned with words” (Crow, 2003, p31). He designated two categories which are very similar to Peirce’s. The Index is the same as Peirce’s icons and ‘Arbitrary’ are the same as Peirce’s symbols. “The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary” (Crow, 2003, p31). Furthermore a sign’s meaning changes depending on where it is used or placed within an environment or context.

On the other hand Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction theory challenges Saussure’s. The notion of a direct relationship between signifier and signified is no longer tenable, and instead we have infinite shifts in the meaning relayed from one signifier to another” (, 2013) [Online]. His theory is associated with the post-structuralist movement “whose key figures included Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jean Baudrillard…” (Lupton, 2004) [Online] This refers to “a critical perspective that emerged during the seventies which has dethroned structuralism as the dominant trend in language and textual theory” (, 2013) [Online]. Derrida depicts writing as the same as speech. He states that “words naturally refer to or reference other words” (, 2013) [Online] and “There is a perpetual tension without a power struggle” (, 2013) [Online]. Derrida’s theory also questions how “representation inhabits reality. How does the external image of things get inside their internal essence? How does the surface get under the skin?”(Lupton, 2004) [Online] This in turn would implore one to explore how the meaning of a symbol would be perceived by the user. Therefore a universal language may need to be understood when written as well as spoken across all cultures globally. Also typography’s “origin cannot be clarified, as repetition is its origin as it is mass produced to be used for a large range of contexts. The text is writing, and writing is langue (non-intention)” (, 2013) [Online].

“Writing cannot be a reproduction of a spoken language, since neither (writing nor spoken language) comes first. Conceived in this way, writing is far more than graphie (written form); it is the articulation and inscription of the trace.” (, 2013)  [Online]. Furthermore Derrida cites that, “writing is characterized by textuality, which is at once the closure and non-closure of the text” ((, 2013) [Online]. However one cannot be aware of the closure if it does not have an end. “Closure is the circular limit within which the repetition of difference infinitely repeats itself. That is to say, closure is its playing space. This movement is the movement of the world as play” (, 2013) [Online].

Jacques Derrida’s “critique of the speech/writing opposition” started when he read Ferdinand de Saussure’s “Course in General Linguistics, a foundation text for modern linguistics, semiotics and anthropology” (, 2004) [Online]. It in turn went against Saussure’s theory that the signifier and the signified have “no natural bond between them” (, 2004) [Online]. Rather the understanding and purpose of a sign is created when it is accompanied or placed in an environment with another sign. (, 2004) [Online] Furthermore he theorised that a sign has no meaning until someone interprets it. Therefore a sign is seen as being “empty, void and absent…” (, 2004) [Online] Derrida on the other hand became “infuriated when he saw the same principle at work in writing, the system of signs created to represent speech” (, 2004) [Online].

Saussure depicts writing as a reproduction of an artificial form of communication or speech. “Saussure’s critique escalates from mild irritation at the beginning of his presentation to impassioned condemnation of the alphabet’s violation of an innocent, natural speech: The tyranny of writing distorts it pristine referent through orthographic monstrosities and phonic deformations” (, 2004) [Online]. Furthermore typography has similarities with photography as both methods capture “the surface of language”: what the creator was feeling and wanting to portray within a message captured in a moment of time like a camera does. (, 2004) [Online] Photography might be a way of creating a universal language as it is a form of an isotype font. Each different photo could consist of a different meaning which could be associated with a word, letter or number in a traditional alphabet. The aura of each photographic context would also need to be considered as this could affect the overall meaning of each symbol depending of what is shown within each photo. However Derrida claims that “phonetic writing does not exist” (, 2004) [Online], as one cannot use a photo in the same manner as a sign or symbol within a visual alphabet. (, 2004) [Online]

“Not only does writing inhabit speech, transforming its grammar and sound, and not only does phonetic writing exist as languages’ own other, an outside continually fails to behave in the manner expect. Thus Saussure has claimed that there are only two kinds of writing, phonetic and ideographic. Derrida found the frontiers between them to fluctuate” (, 2004) [Online].

Roland Barthes’ post structuralist theory shares some similarities to Derrida’s theory as both explore deconstruction theory. “Structuralism is capable of an explanation of any sign system of any culture (i.e. all systems of signification)” (Cuddon, 2013, p554).  Barthes explored how a photographic message is entwined within a photograph. “The Photographic Message describes the multiple messages embedded within images through the co-existence of denotation and connotation” (, 2001) [Online]. This theory explains how mainly photographs affect social cultures with ideologies in a certain way. (, 2001) [Online] “According to Barthes, these messages are constituted in two ways: through denotation, the literal meaning and reference of a sign and/or connotation, the meanings that are suggested or implied by the sign” (, 2001) [Online]. These meanings to a photographic sign may need to be taken in account if one was to develop a universal language based on photographic imagery and signs.

Another one of Barthes’s theories explains how a second language can be used to interpret and understand another language. “Beyond language or ‘second-order language, which is used to describe/explain/interpret a ‘first-order’ language” (Cuddon, 2013, p554). Therefore one would need to consider if another secondary language is needed to underpin and explain a universal language to a user in their native tongue. “Each order of language implicitly relies on a metalanguage by which it is explained, and ironically, therefore, deconstruction is placed precariously in the position of becoming (against its principles and design) a metalanguage itself” (Cuddon, 2013, p554). This concept of Barthes relates back to Derrida’s deconstruction theory. “Barthes’s later theories (post-1968) led him to other challenge caveats: (a) that the Author (or the concept of Author) is dead; an idea he established in his essay The Death of the Author (1968)” (Cuddon, 2013, p554).

Furthermore in 1970 Barthes created an illustrative book “entitled L’empire des Signes” (Rambelli, 2013, p1). This consisted of a “collection of semiotic impressions of Japan (Barthes claims that what he is writing about is a ‘fictive land)” (Rambelli, 2013, p1). The Zen Buddhism followers of Japan make use of a semiotic language which to Barthes completely ignores the signified and concentrates purely on the signifier. One could argue that this method of language completely goes against Saussure’s and Peirce’s semiotic theories of having a sign compiled of a signifier and a signified. (Rambelli, 2013) He explains that the “spirit of Zen is a vacillate; it creates an emptiness of language, it produces the exemption from all meaning. Barthes’s Zen is devoted to centre and depth; everything in it is pure surface, a mere distinctive feature which does not stand for any meaning, especially because what for Barthes is the central meaning of western metaphysics” (Rambelli, 2013, p1). Therefore this language is devoid of a direct meaning to each symbol or sign. A universal language would need to have highly meaningful signs or symbols within it to be able to communicate as effectively as it can to a user or viewer, and consider the diversity of potential users with different needs.

Herbert Bayer was a student at the Bauhaus which was a German art school that operated from 1919 to 1933. (, 2013) [Online] Bayer was tasked by Gropius to “design a typeface for all Bauhaus communiqués for use on all designs or for any occasion” (, 2013) [Online]. This is a form of a universal language which was to be used in graphic design as the official font of Bauhaus. “He took advantage of his views of modern typography to create an idealist typeface. The result was universal – a rather simple geometric sans-serif font” (, 2013) [Online]. Therefore this font could be used for any number of associations, situations or needs as it had no one purpose. (, 2013) [Online] A geometric type face could work on a globally universal scale as the use of geometric lines or shapes might help a user to recognise each letter far faster than a highly intricate typographic font stripped down to its most essential minimum forms, as well as being able to use the font for any occasion or message. However a letter-based universal font would need to create or use a pre existing language as the backbones of it so that the user would be able to understand the language.

Charles Bliss created Blissymbolics. Which was first published in Semantography-Blissymbolics during 1949. Blissymbolics “was conceived by its originator as a system for international communication” (, 2007).  It has elements of an Ideogram or pictogram font that is a “graphic semantically-based language” (McNaughton, 2007) [Online]. “It was first conceived by its originator as a system for international communication” (McNaughton, 2007) [Online]. Therefore exploration of Blissymbolics may help one to see how a universal language could be used and presented on an international scale. “It had its first functional usage at the Ontario Crippled Children’s Centre (OCCC), Toronto, Canada in 1971” (McNaughton, 2007) [Online]. Bliss’s language was used to help children to communicate who had a vast array of “physical disabilities and were nonspeaking” (McNaughton, 2007) [Online]. Each letter or word within Bliss’s international alphabet is created from simple symbols which can be interpreted fairly easily with little need on being taught what each symbol meant. “Blissymbolics is made of basic geometric shapes (circle, square etc.), additional shapes (i.e. heart, house, chair), arrows (0, 45, 90 degrees only) pointers (in four directions) and can be supplemented by Arabic numerals (1 2 3 etc.) and standard punctuation marks (.,’?! etc)” (Crow, 2006, p86). For example feeling is represented logically as a heart (fig 1) and intensity is represented by an exclamation mark (fig 1), whilst the sun is represented as a simple circle (fig 1). (McNaughton, 2007) [Online] Merging or combining a group of simple minimalistic symbols together can also change the established meanings into different ones.

Colour could be used to emphasise the meaning of a symbol or sign in a picto or Isotype font. In turn colour could also change the meaning of a sign. (Colour symbolism and culture, 2013) [Online] Red for example represents “passion, anger, power, heat, love, and danger” (Colour symbolism and culture, 2013) [Online]. Where else one deciphers blue as cold, calm, wet and even friendship. (Colour symbolism and culture, 2013) [Online]  Therefore use of colour in relation to Blissymbolics or another globally universal language could be enhanced by the process of communication which would in turn help the viewer to understand and learn the meaning of each symbol or sign to a higher degree. Recognition of a colour might also help a viewer to instantly create a feeling towards the sign or symbol and be able to remember it far more easily and at a far greater speed. (, 2013)  Whereas with a type-based language a viewer needs more time to interpret the message and meaning of each word or letter as the brain does not decipher text as clearly or quickly as images. (, 2013)

Bliss also worked with very strict placements for each Blissymbolics on a “matrix square with an earthline, middle line and skyline to guide placement” (Crow, 2006, p86). During World War Two Bliss was undoubtedly motivated by what he experienced to create a system which would: “Remove from language the possibilities for its use as an instrument of control. He clearly recognised the cultural hierarchies at play in language, quite possibly through his own experience, and wanted to create something that could provide a workable alternative” (Crow, 2006, p86). This was a utopian aspect which was a shared ideal between Bliss, Neurath and Bayer.

He clearly saw language as a weapon and a device which could create wars. As language can be misunderstood or used to incite a violent outcome. Otto Neurath was also affected by his experiences during the war as he constantly needed to emigrate due to political pressures forced upon him. (Margolin, 1989) Blissymbolics shared many similarities with Isotype in principle. “Principles about the improvement of human experience and breaking down linguistic barriers” (Crow, 2006, p88). However Neurath never thought of his system to be a replacement for text, “rather it would be used alongside text and substitute text where possible”(Crow, 2006, p88), whereas Bliss intended his system to be seen as a new language that would be used on an international scale. Many designers and viewers of this had mixed reactions to Blissymbolics. (Crow, 2006) Adrian Frutiger and Umberto Eco stated that to “see it as a viable language is unrealistic…and describes the system as pasigraphy.” (Crow, 2006, p88) One negative of Blissymbolics is that a viewer needs to learn what each symbol or sign means and the associated ‘grammatical functions’ before they can communicate with it. This in turn would need a secondary language to understand it. This is the same for all languages. (Crow, 2006) Depending on the size and angle of a symbol within this system the meaning changes as well. “For example, a full size circle represents the sun whereas a small circle is a mouth…The width, height and weight of each drawn character is also fixed, along with the precise angles used to construct triangles or arrows” (Crow, 2006, p88). In turn this makes the system even more complex and harder to understand than conventional language systems of today. One would therefore need to be aware of how easy it is to understand a globally universal language based on isotype systems.

Adrian Frutiger approached his pictorial script as symbol or image-based type face. Each sign would have to be learnt and understood the same as Blissymbolics. (Crow, 2006, p90) Unlike an Isotype language Frutiger’s “symbols do not look like the things they represent. Many of Frutiger’s symbols are abstract notions based around creation in some way, or Life Love and Death” (Crow, 2006, p90). His typographic language also relates back to Saussure’s theory of semiotics and ideas. “The meaning of each sign comes not from the form of the sign, but from the other signs around it and its relationship to them.” (Crow, 2006, p90) When a viewer understands the meaning of the code behind the language they can then interpret what each symbol means. Although it is more complex than that: “The underlying code in this case is difficult to read. It is not figurative and so this sequence relies on the reader learning the initial sign for blood and interpreting the metaphorical changes in the other symbols. Frutiger uses metaphor in his geometry to great effect.” (Crow, 2006, p90) An example of this is how he used the “softness and roundness of the symbols relating to life is interpreted by sharp edges in his symbol for wound and exaggerated in the dynamic symbol for combat” (Crow, 2006, p90).  Bliss suggested “Blissymbolics is a Living Language” (Crow, 2006, p89). However Bouridieu’s book of “Language and Symbolic Power” describes Blissymbolics as a language which is “imposed rather than one that has grown organically through social and technological change.”(Crow, 2006, p89) A universal language would need to be accepted and understood by all. However it should not be imposed on the user or viewer as this could isolate the language. (Crow, 2006) The development of such a language would need to have constant feedback and evaluations of itself to be able to become a truly accepted globally universal language for use today.



In conclusion a globally universal typographic language would work as a form of communication across all nationalities. An isotype or ideogram based font is the most universal as one does not need to have knowledge of a foreign language to be able to communicate with it. However all users of it would need to agree on the meanings of each symbol, image or sign, or else it would become very difficult to communicate with it and confusion would arise as to what each sign means. One would also need to consider if the language is truly universal as users with disabilities would also need to be able to interpret and use it. The effect a universal language could have on the traditions of different cultures may also need to be assessed. Furthermore the effects it could have on all art fields could be substantial as a universal language might dilute creativity as all designs would primarily consist of the same symbols or text.


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