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We are meaning-making machines. Roland Barthes actually coined a term for it in 1972: “Homo Significans.” And there is probably no greater evidence of this indomitable urge to seek and create meaning than in art and design. In teaching basic graphic design principles to new students, I usually begin with this, a child’s game relevant to almost everyone, a basis for commonality and exchange. Identifying the few universals in a world made increasingly particular by media and narrowcast messaging has become a crucial aspect of maintaining a channel through which to communicate with the larger world. Our ability to create abstraction is probably even more extraordinary than some of our abilities to produce perfect indexical representation, because abstraction becomes a catch basin for commonality: a territory in which mutual meaning can be created and deployed.

emember the game, Rock, Paper, Scissors? Being a childhood game, it should not be confused with a childish one. It’s actually pretty complex in its ramifications and dates back to the second century A.D. For example, the rock-paper-scissors principle is the subject of continued research in bacterial ecology and viral evolution, and has been used for everything from programming algorithms in game theory to settling multi-milliondollar legal disputes in Florida. (Yes, Florida.) But for our purposes, I’d just like you to humor me and play along. Throw your choice when I say so. Okay: For example, on the left, we have an oak, a specific tree, Rock, paper, scissors: SHOOT! details and characteristics separating it completely from Now look at your hand and ask yourself this question: our mental idea of, say, a fir tree. The more detail I use in Why did I play what I did? Do I play the same thing every this form of representation, the narrower the scope of my time? Do I default to one symbol over the others? Is there communication becomes; when I move towards abstraction, something innate about what it signifies that I respond to? the distillation of the idea of “tree” becomes more iconic, To address that form which your hand has taken­—that more inclusive, more embracing of all trees, everywhere. fist, that fin or that split-fingered jab—look at the position More “universal.” In abstraction, the universality of the of your fingers, and your hand’s rough iconic approxima- middle tree speaks of the idea of ‘tree’ to more people, everytion of your chosen strategy object. You have to marvel at where, than the detailed representation on the left, whose how this abstract representation is made manifest, your particular magnificence eclipses the larger idea. But there’s limb made a glyph in a reductive example of an elegant a line. At what point does tree turn into lollipop? mathematical equation for which John Nash won the This is one of the most important underlying tenets of Nobel Prize. design and communication. That form represents something in the world, a simple During a seminar one day, one of my favorite professors primal object, something all of us have seen, held and used. made the assertion that the definition of “ideology” was Near universals in our civilization: rock, paper and scissors. “the particular, masquerading as the universal.” The top of Further, looking at the position of your hand in front of my head promptly blew off. you: your hand’s relationship and bearing to the rest of your For more than 20 years, I had made a career of transbody is an important contextual component of the gesture, lating particulars into ersatz universals in order to sell because if you lift your hand up, the signal changes: books to members of specific demographics. By packaging Rock: Black Power! emotionally inexpensive vicarious experience, I had devel Paper: Heil Hitler! oped an understanding of how particular idioms in visual Scissors: Peace! language communicate the same thing to different groups These subtle differences in relationship yield huge shifts with different tastes, backgrounds and predispositions. in visual language. Our addiction to significance ensures it. I find myself now wondering what few true universals 24 BCM 39

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