Visual Language -- Combining Words and Images to Make a New Language

Robert Horn, Information Mapping

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University February 17, 1993


The claim I want to make is that we have a a new language growing up around us, which I call Visual Language. This new language is composed of words and images, which are tightly coupled. So closely are words and images integrated that in many communication situations we can not do without either. I will give some evidence for why I think we should begin to treat Visual language as a language, including some reasons why I think it is going to be an important language that most of us will be "speaking" in the next 20 years. One of the most important aspects of analyzing visual language is sorting out what words do best and what the images and other shapes contribute -- when they are tightly coupled. I will present some of my early research results on this aspect of the language. Then, I will discuss some of the needs we have as a community for understanding the "systematics," what you might think of as the grammar and semantics, of visual language. Finally, I hope to have a discussion with the group about the implications of these ideas for computer interfaces.


Robert E. Horn is currently engaged in a multi-year project investigating the properties of visual language and writing a book on the topic. He is well known in the computer community as the originator of the field of structured writing and is the founder and ex-CEO of Information Mapping, Inc. a management consulting company. He has taught on the graduate level at Harvard and Columbia and Sheffield (U.K.) Universities. He is the author of several books, the most recent of which is Mapping Hypertext: Analysis, Linkage and Display of Knowledge for the Next Generation of On-Line Text and Graphics. The book illustrates many of the ideas of visual language. It is published by The Lexington Institute, 80 Marrett Road, Lexington, MA, 02173. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and was awarded the Outstanding Research Award of the National Society for Performance and Instruction. He recently moved to the Bay area.


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