I started this blog piece several months ago, but never finished it ; instead it languished in a folder on my computer. I am publishing it now as a result of what I call my “John Watson moment”.

John Watson was a character in one of Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy novels (the fourth one, I think). For some time he had been harbouring grave doubts about the state of society in general; then he saw something that tipped him over the edge: a packet of toothpicks with operating instructions. He reasoned that any society that could produce such a thing was beyond hope, and he therefore changed his name to Wonko the Sane, and rebuilt his house so that it was inside out: the bare bricks were on the inside, and the wallpaper and furnishings were on the outside. He renamed it “the Outside of the Asylum”.

My own John Watson moment came when I received an email from a climate change action group that I’m involved in. It contained an urgent message: We need a logo. I wanted to scream: “No you don’t. You don’t need a logo. You need to get out onto the streets and persuade people to live sustainably. A logo can’t do that!” But I didn’t do that, nor did I rename my house; instead I decided to finish this blog piece.

I think the current obsession with logos is part of a wider pattern: for some reason, a lot of people in a certain stratum of society seem very keen to eschew language as a means of communication, and instead do it in pictures. This is not a totally mad idea – sometimes a picture can be a very good means of communication – hence the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”. The trouble is, it isn’t always; sometimes it is actually worth very little.

This is particularly true of the logo. Every self-respecting organisation, it seems, has to have one of these little coloured pictures or phrases in a special font. I’m not sure how long the word “logo” has been around, but I am fairly sure that when I first heard of them, the word had not been invented. It was several decades ago, during elections in one of the new African democracies that had shaken off the British imperialist yoke. There were complaints in the press that the elections would be a farce, because such a high proportion of the population was illiterate; because of this the candidates were being represented by distinctive little pictures – for example, of a tree, a lion or a flower – and as a result, so the objectors maintained, most voters would just choose the nicest picture.

Now, I don’t think this was a very valid argument, because, assuming the candidates spoke at hustings meetings, these early logos, which would surely be prominently displayed at such meetings, would form a link between what the candidate was saying and the ballot paper. If a candidate whose logo was a tree was advocating policies that a particular voter liked the sound of, that voter would put a cross against the tree even if he or she could not read or write. Nevertheless, since that time I have always thought that logos did corrupt rational behaviour just a little. Faced with three otherwise identical-looking companies, for instance, isn’t there a danger that we will choose the one – to repair our roof, or to apply to for a job – that has the nicest logo?

I have no doubt that organisations that use logos do so in order to maximise the chance that they will be remembered, recognised. A similar process goes on in other walks of life; consider road signs, for instance. These codify certain laws or warnings in such a way that their meaning will be taken in in the split second a road user has to study them. What fascinates me here, though, is that there is a point at which pictograms give way to good old words.

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Consider these two examples of traffic signs from the same street in my home town. It seems the authorities can’t quite make up their minds whether a “bus” is best represented by a three letter word or a rather complicated looking pictogram. Presumably experts differ on this point. At least, I hope experts of some sort have been canvassed by the designers of these signs; otherwise it looks like sheer randomnesss as to whether we use a word or a picture, and mixing them up in the same sign is, in some sense, the worst possible thing you can do.

Other forms of transport are not immune. I remember when we were installing flap indicators on the platforms at Southern Region railway stations in the 1980s, we were told that whenever a train was due to stop at Gatwick Airport station, the word “Airport” was to be replaced by a little picture of an aeroplane. This was, to some extent, sensible: the little picture took up much less space than the word “airport”, so you could get more stations on the flap. Still, it looked odd having just that one pictogram amongst a sea of words.

Pictures do have their uses, of course. If I am trying to describe a complicated three-dimensional object to someone who has not seen it, I can try using words but a picture will be a lot better (and a proper engineering drawing, with plan and elevations, even better). Yet anyone who has attempted to put together a modern “flat-pack” knows the severe limitations of using only pictures in order to overcome the language problem, or rather, in order to increase the manufacturers’ profits by not needing to translate for different countries.

Nevertheless, it does seem that we live in a culture obsessed by the visual. Some time ago, I went to my local library to view a series of black and white photographs taken in Berlin and other parts of Eastern Europe in 1989, the year the Wall came down. Having been to Hungary, Poland and Romania, but not Berlin, I was interested to learn exactly where these photos had been taken; but alas, there were no captions, so I could not find out. All there was was the pictures. I emailed the photographer to find out why no captions had been provided, and his response was that “I wanted the pictures to speak for themselves”.

He has a point. These pictures can, to some extent, speak for themselves; but the message they convey will be dictated by the beholder, not by the artist. If someone from, say, Chile had seen one of the pictures of a political demonstration, they might have linked it in their mind with a memory of such a demo back home. But it clearly wasn’t a picture of Chile but of somewhere in Europe ………

Once upon a time there was, in my home town, Brighton, a huge railway works which built and repaired steam locomotives. Situated adjacent to the main station, it opened in 1840 and eventually closed in 1962. Later the buildings were pulled down and it became a huge car park. Later still, in the early 21st century, this area was redeveloped as the New England Quarter.

In the heyday of the railways there had been a goods depot just down the hill from the station. It was served by a goods line which left the main London line near the bridge carrying Dyke Road Drive over the line, and ran southwards alongside it, on a slight downward slope which eventually took it under the Brighton-Lewes line and on to the goods depot.

As with many old railway lines, this goods line escaped development because a long narrow piece of land is not really much good to anyone. When the New England quarter arrived, the line – which had long since lost its rails – was earmarked as a “Greenway” – a path leading into Brighton town centre from the outskirts.

So, as blocks of posh flats rose out of the old car park, the old goods line was transformed into a path winding between grassy verges and running past the only remaining relic of the railway works – the tall brick columns that held up the depot buildings after they were extended outwards over the goods line.

As the work progressed, I was pleased to see that the brick columns had been preserved, and hoped that some record of the area’s history might be provided in the form of a short piece of historical text, with pictures, mounted in a slanting frame like those often found on Sustrans cycle routes. But I was to hope in vain. When the Greenway opened, there was not even so much as a sign telling people where it led to – much less a historical display. Instead, there were some large “tools” resembling foks and shovels that had been hung from the tops of the brick columns. These were supposed to “represent” in some way the industrial heritage of the site. But there was nothing more explicit than that. Later, in the same vein, and probably at vast expense, a two-dimensional model of a steam locomotive was erected on a bridge at one end of the path, visible to all who passed beneath and of course to walkers on the Greenway itself. It was accompanied by a plaque with three columns of text describing “The History”, “The Installation” and “The Artist”. Incredibly, the locomotive depot was not mentioned at all under the first of these; it only featured in the middle column, which noted that steam engines once ran along the goods line, “past the locomotive depot”.

This idea that it is intrinsically better to communicate in pictures rather than words seems to have become endemic. I might say it was “post-modern” if only I knew what that term meant; to me, it suggests, vaguely, being deliberately obscure and contrary, always taking the most convoluted and non-intuitive path – but don’t quote me on that.

Anyway, we are sophisticated people, aren’t we? We are too clever to do the obvious, so we do something else instead. So, when civilisation itself is under threat, what do we do? Reach for a logo! That will surely help!

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