Pictorial language systems have been used to make sense of the world since before hieroglyphs—from ancient cuneiform script to blissymbols. Two modern systems with similar qualities to the New Mediators approach are Ecolanguage & Energy Systems Language.
Lee Arnold’s Ecolanguage is a set of symbols so basic they can be used to represent anything, tangible or not. Arnold uses the symbols to explain complicated concepts like social security and tax cuts. Ecolanguage is so basic in its form that it is almost pre-pictoral, a consequence of which is a lack of ability to engage the audience. Additionally, the diagrams are so basic they require a great deal of contextualization, with Arnold supplies in the form of an audio voice over. Still, Ecolanguage can be effective, and begins to explore animated diagrams.
Ecolanguage is based off of Energy Systems Language, developed by Ecologist Howard T. Odum. As you can see, Energy Systems Language formalized interactions, emphasizing the relationships between nodes as opposed to the nodes themselves.
The Visual Essay
At the other end of the spectrum exists the work of Simon Robson. Robson’s concern is less expository and more persuasive. His political polemic What Barry Says seeks to extend his message through emotional metaphor and stirring imagery. Robson’s voice comes clearly comes through in a strong and obvious editorial role, all the more re-enforced by the name in the title. The intense emotional line drawn provides a captivating experience for the audience. This approach relies heavily on Robson’s individual artistic talents, and lays down less of a framework for consistent applications to future projects.
Between Arnold and Robson exists the work of Common Craft. Common Craft’s short and simple expository videos effectively explain a variety of web 2.0 products and phenomena using paper cutouts and whiteboards. Their In Plain English series of videos demonstrates how markers and scissors can a video camera can still get the job done as long as the narrative is potent.
The genre of documentary film often deals with complex subjects. The recent I.O.U.S.A. incorporates the most extensive and powerful use of information graphics I have yet seen in a documentary film. The graphics, by Brian Oakes, apply meaningful movement to traditional graphs and charts. For example, when social security costs are added to the federal budget, the “weight” of the costs push the bar representing the budget down budget. I.O.U.S.A. shuffles a balance of live action, historical footage, and motion graphics to create an authoritative, but approachable exposition.
A Brief History of America, an animated short from Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine, quickly draws a relationship between guns and race. A Brief History of America demonstrates the efficiency of an animated explanation. The crude cartoon aesthetic satirical tone of the piece allow it a great deal of freedom (like the ability to jump across decades at a scene cut).
The Way Things Work
Dave MacCaulay’s classic book The Way Things Work brings together a comic and technical aesthetic, creating expository writing at a level approachable by children. Sometimes called the Great Explainer, MacCaulay uses primitive, almost Rube Goldberg-like metaphors and substitutions to replace the often generic elements of complicated objects. MacCaulay’s illustrated explanations live in large-bound books, and his approach is suited for printed media.
But what about an approach that works across media? How does the New Mediators address the move towards an increasingly mediated future?