I saw Talk to Me, a new exhibit that opened this summer at the Museum of Modern Art, exploring “Design and the Communication between People and Objects”. I was expecting the exhibit to be more focused on interactive media and human-computer interaction design, but actually I discovered that it is about more than good interface design or the interactions between people and technology, it’s about the meaning and emotion behind the communication between people and objects.

On the floor, I found myself much more drawn to the displays about human-to-human communications, and the language patterns we see in these methods of communication, than I was to the interactive media displays. I don’t know if this is due to my predilection for languages and culture, but most likely so. graffiti taxonomy

One of my favorite displays was the “Graffiti Taxonomy: New York and Paris” by Evan Roth, 2009 and 2011. He cataloged characters from graffiti tags into letterform and typography taxonomies. In doing so, he isolated the ten most commonly used letters in graffiti (A, E, I, K, N, O, R, S, T, and U) and displayed these crowdsourced catalogues to show the different regional styles, commonalities, and deviations among each letterform.

Here’s a photo I took of the “S” form.

The other display that I really liked was the “Homeless City Guide”, by Emily Read and Chen Hsu, 2007. These two ethnographers developed a pictorial code for homeless people to communicate with each other about safety, shelter, dangerous places, free food, and other important events, by writing on walls, sidewalks, and other surfaces in chalk.
homeless city guide
These non-permanent marks keep the information up-to-date and relevant, like a Twitter feed, that is somewhat ephemeral in nature and always changing with the times. This is very important on the streets when things are changing so rapidly from one day to the next.

The tagline is “Make Your Mark and Help Others to Read the City”.

I especially liked that they even attempted to introduce a rating system for some of the symbols to give a more qualitative aspect to the message. For example, the symbol for “soup run” has a rating associated with it.

I wanted to see a video about the design and development of the code, but they didn’t have any to watch. And I wanted to know what homeless people thought of this code, and if they created any additional symbols on their own.

There were some other projects that I enjoyed seeing at the exhibit, but these two really resonated with me. I really like these simple forms of communication that we develop, despite the fact that our society is in the age of cloud computing, mobile computing, and the like. The simplest forms of communication and language, like pictures and symbols, are still useful and relevant because of the meaning and emotionality that they convey.

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