Visual Language and Converging Technologies in the Next 1015 Years and Beyond

Robert E. Horn, Visiting Scholar, Stanford University

Visual language is one of the more promising avenues to the improvement of human performance in the short run (the next 10 to 15 years) (Horn 2000b, 2000c). The current situation is one of considerable diversity and confusion as a new form of communication arises. But visual language also represents many great opportunities. People think visually. People think in language. When words and visual elements are closely intertwined, we create something new and we augment our communal intelligence.

Today, human beings work and think in fragmented ways, but visual language has the potential to integrate our existing skills to make them tremendously more effective. With support from developments in information technology, visual language has the potential for increasing human "bandwidth," the capacity to take in, comprehend, and more efficiently synthesize large amounts of new information. It has this capacity on the individual, group, and organizational levels. As this convergence occurs, visual language will enhance our ability to communicate, teach, and work in fields such as nanotechnology and biotechnology.


Visual language is defined as the tight integration of words and visual elements and has characteristics that distinguish it from natural languages as a separate communication tool as well as a distinctive subject of research. It has been called visual language, although it might well have been called visual-verbal language.

A preliminary syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of visual language have been described. (Horn 1998) Description of, understanding of, and research on visual language overlap with investigations of scientific visualization and multimedia.

Figure B.8. Defining visual language.


The tight integration of words and visual elements has a long history (Horn 1998, Chapter 2). Only in the last 50 years, with the coming together of component visual vocabularies from such widely separate domains as engineering diagramming technologies developed in medical illustration and hundreds of expressive visual conventions from the world of cartooning, has something resembling a full, robust visual-verbal language appeared (Tufte 1983, 1990).

Its evolution has been rapid in the past ten years, especially with the confluence of scientific visualization software; widespread use of other quantitative software that permits the creation of over one hundred quantitative graphs and charts with the push of a single function key; and the profusion of multimedia presentation software, especially PowerPoint which, it is said, has several million users a day.

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Figure B.9. Creation of visual language. The Promise of More Effective Communication

There is widespread understanding that visual-verbal language enables forms and efficiencies of communication that heretofore have not been possible. For example, improvements in human performance from 23 to 89% have been obtained by using integrated visual-verbal stand-alone diagrams. In this case, stand-alone diagrams refer to diagrams that have all of the verbal elements necessary for complete understanding without reading text elsewhere in a document (Chandler and Sweller 1991; Mayer 2001; Horton 1991).

There are several key advantages of the emerging visual-verbal language:

a) It facilitates representation. This new language facilitates presentation of complex, multidimensional visual-verbal thought, and — with multimedia tools — can incorporate animation, as well. Researchers and scholars are no longer constrained by the scroll-like thinking of endless paragraphs of text.

i) It facilitates big, complex thoughts. Human cognitive effectiveness and efficiency is constrained by the well-known limitations of working memory that George Miller identified in 1957 (Miller 1957). Large visual displays have for some time been known to help us overcome this bandwidth constraint. But only since the recent advances in visual language have we been able to imagine a major prosthesis for this human limitation. The prosthesis consists of a suite of visual language maps. This visual-verbal language (together with computer-based tools) may eliminate the major roadblocks to thinking and communicating big, complex thoughts, i.e., the problem of representing and communicating mental models of these thoughts efficiently and effectively.

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