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Worth a thousand words

Bill Coffin | July 17, 2017

When Ridley Scott was directing the classic science fiction movie Alien, he wasn’t just creating a story of a group of space travelers trapped inside a huge ship with a hostile alien organism bent on hunting them down. He wanted to build an entire world around the story, inserting a level of detail into the setting that would make it so rich that one could imagine a hundred other stories taking place in it at the same time. This is a hallmark of good storytelling in general, and of science fiction and fantasy storytelling in particular, since their settings are imaginary and often must be created more or less from whole cloth. In Alien, the idea would be that if the world that felt lived in, relatable, and real, that, in turn, would the story work much better. To achieve this, Scott brought in renowned designer Ron Cobb to design the human technology seen in the film—the ships, the spacesuits, the tools, etc. And one of the things Cobb did was design a semiotic standard on display throughout the movie—a language of icons, if you will—that provides one of those details you never really noticed, but it fit into our background expectations of what we might see in an industrial workplace of the future. The icons were kind of what you’d expect workplace safety icons to resemble if you had a job in space, communicating things like: this area is pressurized, this area has high radiation, this area is without artificial gravity, here is where you find medical supplies.

What makes Cobb’s semiotic standard work so well is that it gets the point across regardless of language or culture. That is the true power of iconography. Some years ago, I wrote about how Disney had rolled out a new set of workplace safety and risk management icons that meant to explain a variety of hazards and best practices to an international workforce with some potentially large language barriers within it. Once again, a set of well-designed icons was the method of choice for addressing the situation, and what Disney created was both brilliant and workable and managed to communicate in a series of small images what a thousand pages of written documentation could not: Be careful on slippery floors, heat this food above a certain temperature, be wary of sharp edges.

I relate these stories because I recently noticed the release of an extensive set of compliance-themed icons that are meant to be incorporated into compliance communications and training materials to get across certain points without having to resort to a thousand words each time to do it. What’s more, the icons each illustrate a singular concept—like gift, government, approval—that when linked together can communicate something a little more sophisticated, like: If you’re giving a gift to a government official, you need prior approval. That is some powerful stuff, right there.

It is Compliance Week’s policy—and my own journalistic policy, as well—not to single out specific products or services from vendors unless there is a really good reason to. This is that rare case when I’m willing to make that exception because I have long been a believer in the power of pictograms as an educational tool at the workplace, and because this is the first time I’ve seen somebody create a family of pictograms specifically for use within the compliance space. Now, I’m not saying you should run right out and give business to the designer of these icons, but I do think this firm is on to something here. The power of pictograms is undeniable, and it’s something every compliance program should consider seriously. It’s one thing to write up compliance communications and illustrate them with stock art. It’s another thing entirely to communicate through visuals alone. It takes a special skill set, a lot of work, and a design team that is up to the challenge. But those who can do all those things can create a compliance tool that is effective, and effectiveness matters. A lot.