The Universal Language of Images

October 11, 2017 | by Todd Pierce

We’ve all heard the cliché a picture’s worth a thousand words, but the saying didn’t just come from nothing. There is real value to using visuals to communicate—especially, as I recently found out, when in a foreign country. The universal language of images definitely became my native tongue while traveling around Asia on my honeymoon with my wife.

I had a couple concerns when booking our trip—how long will it take to adjust to the time change? Will I find anything that I’d like to eat? (I’ve been known to be a picky eater.) And of course, How will we communicate and understand our surroundings?



When we got to our first destination in Thailand, I was surrounded by signage and billboards written in a language I couldn’t come close to understanding. I started to think, am I going to be able to understand anything in this country? But with the help of images and familiar iconography accompanying the foreign text, I found myself much more able to understand the messages around me.



Our first stop in Thailand was a small resort town, which was absolutely beautiful. Most of the experience was tailored to westerners and we rarely came across instances where we felt like communication was a barrier. However, our next stop was in Bangkok, which is where we ran into a few instances where only speaking English posed a real issue.

Early on, we realized that tasks as simple as getting to the train proved to be more difficult then it appeared. People were willing to help but the lack of a common language became an inconvenience. Ultimately it resulted in me falling back on my knowledge that images speak louder than words and we began noticing a language of images that directed us accordingly.

Once we got the hang of transportation we started exploring the city. We made it to the weekend market, which I can only describe to you as the biggest flea market you have ever seen accommodating around 200,000 tourist each weekend. It’s 35 acres of back alleys that disperse into different sections where everyone is trying to sell you any and everything.



Luckily in between screaming vendors and DJ music (yes they had DJs) I found myself surrounded by images of products and foods that, again, I was easily able to point to as a means of communicating. While perusing the stalls of goods, I came across the ultimate warning sign and of course it was written in Thai. But with an image like that, how would I ever know what NOT to do?



THANK YOU, ILLUSTRATIONS!!! Apparently public urination is frowned upon in the  streets of Bangkok—who knew?

The last stop on our trip was Tokyo and again, while here I was surrounded by billboards and ads galore. However, I’d never seen anything like this before, it was like Vegas on steroids. I should also note that as you can see in the pictures, everything was in Japanese which made things slightly tougher for us Americans.



Once we were ready to grab dinner, we decided to duck into this authentic Japanese restaurant to try some local fare. Here is where we came across our first true language barrier. Nothing major, in fact some may say you can never have too many beers, but when ordering our food and drinks I noticed that even simple questions about the portion sizes were a struggle. This made me a little nervous but hallelujah Japan has a tried and true language of images on their menus! So again I resulted to pointing and nodding to communicate what I would like.



If you thought that was it, I’ve saved the best for last. For those of you who have never traveled to Asia let me tell you that bathrooms can be a whole new experience. Most toilets come affixed with a bidet and during my whole trip, I was never more grateful for the use of images than I was in those very moments. You may never really appreciate icons to their fullest until you find yourself on a toilet seat not knowing what or where something will be spraying from. This wasn’t the most informative bidet I came across but I could at least decipher that I shouldn’t press the button with the icon of a ladies head and thats all I needed to know.



Admittedly, while writing this article I was slightly motivated by selfishness and a walk down honeymoon-memory-lane—but I was also excited to share my personal experience with how iconography and imagery improved my experience while traveling abroad. This trip was a true eye opener and I’m going to keep this feeling in mind as I design. It became obvious that for clear communication, text doesn’t carry all the communication load and images aren’t just included to be “pretty”—they serve a real function, for foreigners and natural citizens alike.

Have you had any crucial experiences with pictures, iconography or the language of images that’s played interpreter for you while traveling abroad? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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