<BODY> Language

by Joe Gillespie — May 1, 1999

by Joe Gillespie

Whether we are aware of it or not, when we speak to someone else there is a lot of communication taking place other than the words being spoken. Facial expressions, hand gestures and intonations of the voice all colour the message, adding emphasis to certain ideas or showing that we are dismissive of others. Even the subtlest movement of the face can make the difference between a phrase being deadly serious or a whimsical joke.

The shape and rhythm of hand movements, that are fairly meaningless in isolation, can add expression and power to a spoken message, a technique much favoured by orators and politicians.

This is body language.

But although body language can be used to give strength to a message it can also betray the speaker if used incorrectly or if the person is unaware that it is happening. A lowering of the head or eyes signifies submission, a steely stare with teeth showing is animal aggression. When I use the word 'animal' I mean just that because these subliminal messages are common to almost all animals, whether human or not and programmed into our instincts from the beginning of time.

Of course, no other animal has the sophistication of verbal communication that humans have. Many of the animal body language signals are very obvious, to compensate for the lack of speech. The song of a blackbird or bark of a dog are attempts at verbal communication, but it is how they are delivered that is important, not the content.

Think of how a well-played violin can speak to you without uttering a single word. There are many levels of communication, the violin is speaking at an emotive level and it can a very strong message indeed.

Tone of Voice

Which leads quite neatly to another related subject - tone-of-voice. "It's not what you say but the way that you say it", as the old adage goes. No, I'm not advocating trivial content, but the 'delivery' of any message adds nuances above and beyond the actual words.

Part of a graphic designer's skills is to manipulate the communication of a message using the visual equivalent of 'tone-of-voice'.

The idea of a visual tone-of-voice is most easily understood if you consider the way we dress. Dress is an extension of both body language and tone-of-voice and sends messages about us to anyone who see us. Again, they can be deliberate or accidental. A smart business suit, a vampy cat-suit, jeans and a sweater, a clown's costume - just think of the effect of wearing the 'wrong clothes' in a particular situation. A clown's costume at a board meeting, a sequinned cat-suit at a job interview. Wear the 'wrong clothes' and it doesn't really matter what you say, the 'presentation' will negate it.

Presentation

Now, coming back to graphic communication, let us look at how a visual identity can be appropriate or inappropriate under different circumstances.

A high class clothes or jewellery store will have one kind of facade and the 'pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap' another. The visual vocabulary of the classy store will be sophisticated, laid-back and understated. The store front of the discount store will scream at you in the ugliest possible way. Reverse these images and neither will work, the discount store will look too expensive regardless of their prices and the boutique - you just wouldn't be seen dead in it!

Another example, wine labels. The highest quality, and expensive wines usually have simple labels, one or two colours, elegant, no nonsense. The cheap plonk goes over the top with lots of gaudy colours and gold foil. It is trying hard to look expensive and to fool the buyer into thinking it is better than it actually is, and some fall for the trick, or at least pretend to have been fooled.

There isn't a right and wrong way to present a message, but there certainly are degrees of appropriateness.

Well, I haven't said much about Web page design so far but just think about the subliminal messages that come out of a Web page because of its body language, tone-of-voice and visual presentation.

Does your page display an air of confidence in its message or is it like the clown at the board meeting?

Many pages I see communicate ineptness, even from large companies who should know better. The pages may be technically perfect, but they have been produced by people without any visual communications skills. They are like the karaoke artist who can't sing. They are like the person talking to you with their head bowed down, they don't know that they are sending the wrong signals, they are not in control of their communication.

Then there are the sites like the glitzy wine label, trying to fool people that they are something that they are not. They are trying too hard, shouting every trick in the book at the top of their voices - animation, sound, flashing, blinking waving their hands in the air. They are making noise, not communicating, and wasting a lot of bandwidth for all their efforts.

Most salespeople know what is acceptable business attire when they go to meet a prospective customer, but when they go selling on the Web, they haven't a clue!

Regardless of the contents of a Web site, it has a visual personality. Replace all the words with 'Greeking' and that personality still shines through. It may be obvious, or subliminal but it is influencing somebody in a positive or negative way. It may be like the classy boutique, or the nasty dime store. It may look thoughtlessly unconsidered or spic 'n' span. These 'first impressions' can work for you or against. What I will say is that if you are not a skilled visual communicator, it is better to err on the conservative side. The phrase that sums it all up is 'keep it simple, stupid!'

Next month I will look at 'visual identity' and 'image' and how you can use them to communicate positively.

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