Visual Babylonian Confusion

7 min readJan 29, 2021

About the Fact that Visual Languages have much less in common than the verbal tongues.

It is said that language is the main vehicle of information, whether it is spoken or written. Yet we know that more than 70 percent of human communication is non verbal, in the form of gestures, tone of voice and body language.

A language consists of letters, words and phrases set in a structured system, often on a national or regional level. When people settled after the great migrations they spoke their tribal languages with their own inherited rules.

When the idea of the national state was established, majority languages emerged. As education became a priority in order for a nation to prosper, common words, structured spelling and rules of grammatics had to be implemented.

The result is that in modern age, as we cross a border, people suddenly become incomprehensible. A common national language ties it’s people together, but it also creates communicational road blocks.

But there are linguistic similarities as well. Latin, greek, roman, arabic, indoeuropean, norse and germanic languages have merged in different ways through history. Recent words are more similar than ancient ones. Biscotti Italiana is probably an Italian biscuit.

Now for non-verbal communication. Nodding, pointing, rolling eyes, shoulder gestures, reflexive sounds, gutteral moans and facial expressions helps us overcome some of the barriers, but maybe not all.

Studies have shown that communication between friends can be divided into 7 percent words, 38 percent tone of voice, and 55 percent body language. With that in mind, we still have a 93 percent ability to communicate, even though we don’t understand a word of what is said.

This is not the point, however. Visual Babylonian confusion relates to visual symbols, clues, colours, iconography, typography, and so on, and which associations and connections they create.

Same meaning, different symbols

In Norway, for instance, a person with a blue and yellow outfit have to be Swedish. Or so we think. In Sweden, on the other hand, a guy dressed in red, white and blue might connect to any of the 31 countries that uses those colours, including USA, UK, France, Norway, Russia and Iceland.

The effect of various visual signals and how they are perceived deals with what they reminds us of. A special kind of hat, like the one Fleksnes wore, or an celebrity’s obnoxious behaviour, a distinct dialect of a movie character can all relate to our common experiences in various ways.

Visual clues that reminds a Norwegian of a special bunad, rings no bells with Danes, Dutchmen or Dubliners. Is the eight leaf rose, as often used in Norwegian knitware, a national heritage or does it belong to Selbu?

Regional symbols of Norway

Symbols that reminds us of NS, the Norwegian WW2 nazi party, or the name Vidkun, the party leader, evokes immediate reactions. If a designer and client are both unaware of such connotations it can cost dearly. As when two German chemical giants merged with Nukem as their new and globally advertised name …

In 1938 Studebaker, an American car manufacturer launched their state of the art model, proudly called the Dictator. The bright creatives behind the name were soon thereafter beheaded and the car became the Diplomat. Nice touch there.

In the UK, chocolate is generally associated with Cadbury blue. In Norway it’s the pale yellow of Freia. These are not national colours but stem from a more or less random board room decision in each country.

The touch, smell and taste of chocolate

The Bolivian flag reminds Norwegians of easter. The flag is similar to the Kvikk-Lunsj wrap; for more than 60 years our favourite easter chocolate.

While their flag is green white and red, the Italian national colour is azzurro or blue. At the same time their beloved race cars sports the blood-red hues. How come? Visual symbolism can be political, social, cultural or psychological.

The racing red, rosso corsa, reflects italian mentality or temper, the blue stems from the colours of the unity of Italy, and is both cultural and political. In their french inspired flag, blue was replaced with green. Their most testosteron-filled newspaper, Il Gazzetto della Sport, is bright pink.

Some Italian colours

An interresting fun fact is that popular foods like pasta, pizza, taco and tortilla all come from countries with similar flags, apart from the Mexican insignia in theirs. The food from these countries is often symbolized in a flag-like manner by green leaves, white dough and tomatoes.

Both Italians and Mexicans use their national colours to promote their foods

In Northern Ireland the orange colour is political, in the Netherlands it’s royal and in India it’s religious. Pink used to be a boyish colour, now it’s girlish.

Is the British Racing Green a homage to the Green Island for lending their roads for British racing cars, or is the green rooted in English culture. While most Norwegian barn doors are red, the English are green.

It a pre-digital age typographical preferences differed much through Europe. Italians uses more italic type than others, possibly because it’s perceived as more temperamental and dynamic. Germans tends to use more geometrical types, maybe in line with their matter-of-factly inclination towards technology. Other countries have similar, subconscient preferences in typography.

French cars didn’t sell well in Germany, partly because of their looks. They hired psychologists to aid the designers to mend this, and to a certain degree they succeded. But it was costly, as the brands lost their soul, identity an integrity in the process.

A car that really needs therapy. Or does is?

Designs and brands can also have strong social implications as they can be seen as tokens of belonging. The signs can be either outspoken or subtle, wheater they are global or local. In Norway we’re only 12 per km2, in Denmark 126. That requires even more advanced social skills and a more elaborate handling of visual signals.

Is Scandinavian design merely a style or is a result of culture, climate, mentality and given resources? The answers are many, but some stands out.

While empires imported mahogany, ebony and ivory from their colonies, we chopped down the nearest pine. We had a more egalitarian society, so what we made, we made for all. Pragmatics and smart hands created the light, bright simplicity that others came to call Scandinavian design.

Norwegian wood

Before the term was coined, finnish design responded well with the world. Maybe because their spoken language stops firmly at their borders? If we lose one sense, we tend to strengthen the others.

Apple’s design roots are far from American, they’re nordic. As was Dieter Rahms designs for Braun. American design used to be pseudo classical in many respects, probably due to their relatively short history, apart from the natives. Design and visual styles was expressively overdone.

Global advertising was the holy grail for many multinational companies. They could save money and be more consistent at the same time. But it failed miserably. Our cultural heritage and mentality is so diverse that an ad that works in one market can have an opposite effect in an other.

As a telephone salesman, a dubbed advertising spot will have a hard time convincing it’s audience , due to the fact that our visual language, and the associations it creates is far more different than our spoken and written languages. Studies show that trust is more often gained by body language than the spoken word.

Say Yes to No now!

When we approach a new person or product the communication always follows the same path. The first we respond to is the visual appearance, the looks, symbols and signs. If that looks interresting, we listen to the voice, and what it says. Finally we experience a behaviour, smell or taste. If the first impression does not appeal to us, we will never proceed to read the words or taste or smell the flavours.

To really understand each other, we need to know the words, expressions and subtle nuances of idioms, slang, dialects and language. The same applies for visual communication. The visual words and expressions are made up of what various colours, symbols, images, shapes and patterns reminds us of, and they are more often than not based on local culture, heritage, visuality, national preferences and general mentality.

It’s easy to convey unintentional signals. We have to know what strings to pull. Visual signals is so subtle and inherent that it’s almost impossible to replicate from the outside.

Bjørn Rybakken, Cretalux Visual Identity & Design, Oslo




Cretalux er latin og betyr lyskritt. I navnet ligger vår filosofi — viktigheten i å skape sterke, nærmest lysende identiteter, både for produkter og bedrifter.