Earlier this year I went to the Design of Understanding conference at the St Bride library in London. Organiser Max Gadney compiled an fascinating and eclectic list of speakers for the day; and while all the talks were great, for me paleoartist Luis Rey was the real highlight. Not only because of his amazing art and sense of humour, but also the way he described how for a long time his vibrant artwork was shunned by the scientific community. His philosophy to recreating dinosaurs in art is that with only bones, how could anyone really have any idea what colours or textures made up dinosaurs in real life?
Chirostenotes (Copyright Luis Rey)
However, with the discovery of feathers on a dinosaur in China in the 1990s, suddenly Luis Rey’s artwork seemed perhaps not as fantastic as originally thought. He is now one of the foremost and well-respected paleoartists — working with many leading palaeontologists on the amazing Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages.
During the talk Luis spoke of how the Tyrannosaurus rex has — and still is — often very inaccurately potrayed.
First ever published reconstruction of a Tyrannosaurus rex
The classic image of a Tyrannosaurus rex is that of a lumbering predator with a bipedal posture. But how could the Tyrannosaurus rex possibly catch anything with a stance like this? Scientific theory has changed its view of the Tyrannosaurus rex dramatically over the years — and now sees the infamous dinosaur as standing parallel to the ground with its tail extending behind.
How the Tyrannosaurus rex’s posture is now seen by science
While science’s understanding of the Tyrannosaurus rex has changed, that classic image of Tyrannosaurus rex walking on two feet is still very strong in everyone’s minds. If we were playing a game such as Pictionary and you had to draw a Tyrannosaurus rex, would you not at least consider drawing the ‘traditional’ view of the Tyrannosaurus rex in the hope that your partner may guess it faster — spurning science for the sake of victory?
I definitely would — even though I’d feel like I’d betrayed science just a little bit.
During Rey’s talk I realised that no matter how inaccurate a perception of something is, the most common perception is still the most powerful.
Looking at icon design, it’s this very fact that explains why in this world of rapidly emerging technology we still live with some incredibly out-dated yet universally understood icons.
My favourite day-to-day icon — mostly a British thing I suspect — is the symbol for speed camera:
When was the last time anyone saw a daguerreotype-style camera like this? Or the last time your parents or even grandparents saw a camera like this?
Yet the old-style camera icon still remains strong — through the ubiquity of appearing on every major roadway in the UK. Shown in isolation and it would probably confuse people at first. But amongst red, amber and green lights and other traffic-related furniture it is immediately recognisable.
The BBC Global Experience Language was only launched a few years ago but it also contains many strong images of old and almost extinct technology. Old wind-up clocks for alarms, cogs for settings in devices that are wholly electronic — and of course let’s not forget another classic time traveller in the icon world: the floppy disk for save.
The old faithful ‘save’ icon: the 1.44mb floppy disk
The wonderful video below shows some French children being shown an array of old technology. Their reactions are fascinating — especially around 44 seconds in when they are presented with floppy disks.
Yet children learn so quickly I’m sure in the context of a computer desktop they would be able to ‘save’ something by using the save icon with a floppy disk. They know it in the context of a computer desktop, just not in a real world manifestation.
Just like Latin is used in scientific circles as a ‘dead language’ that won’t change, I wonder if one reason these anachronistic icons survive is not dissimilar.
The floppy disk is not going to change any time soon because it’s dead. However, think about the storage devices that have preceded it. Zip drives (100mb — wow those were the days), CD-Rs, portable hard drives, USB thumb drives… and now we head into the world of cloud storage. Updating a save icon to reflect current technology would not only require constant iteration but it would also dilute the power of the iconography and convention that has already been established with the old floppy disk.
Whether it’s dinosaurs, speed cameras or floppy disks there’s no doubt that there are far more appropriate ways to symbolise these as icons. But for better or worse, the most powerful icon is the one that resonates most widely: whether it’s the terribly inaccurate Victorian view of how a Tyrannosaurus rex looked and stood or the use of an obsolete form of storage that most kids today have never seen — and probably will never see.