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Visual communications - the designer's "Lingua Franca"

Visuals serve as the common language between designers and their audience and can make all the difference to true understanding.


In his article “Why Cities Matter to New Urbanism,” Harvey Gantt, architect and new urbanist, describes the importance of being willing to work at establishing credibility with communities as planners and designers.  He astutely observes, “As important as physical renewal and revitalization is, the success of revitalizing the old involves human dynamics.” In other words: good design is about people and relationships.

But what sometimes hampers those relationships – and, thus, a true understanding between designer and client – is language. Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist, explains that while language is intended to facilitate cooperation, in fact, “it draws rings around cooperative groups.” A person is immediately identified as either an insider or an outsider by the language they use. We have an inherent distrust of those who are different from us.  Hence, as designers who are outsiders in that community, our language can cause loss of credibility. Pagel quickly points out that in a world where cooperation ensures prosperity, we must find ways to avoid differences in language from preventing the sharing of ideas and information.

In communities in particular, it seems to me that language is often what causes the gap between policies or standards and their implementation. People don’t “get it,” so they don’t comply, either by choice or from lack of understanding.  As planners and designers in communities, our goal is to share our knowledge and experience in order to meet their needs, solve their challenges and improve quality of life. If distrust is the “burden to cooperation imposed by language” and credibility is the price, what are we to do?

History has shown that what can help is creating a “lingua franca” – a bridge or working language used between groups with no shared mother tongue.  Lingua franca enables socially or culturally disparate groups to communicate and cooperate in order to achieve mutually beneficial ends while preserving each group’s identity.  As architects, engineers, landscape architects and planners designing with communities in mind, what is our lingua franca?

Visuals. Visual or graphic design communication has been the working language of leading planners and designers for centuries.  Doodles, napkin sketches, diagrams and conceptual drawings have been the lingua franca of our professions. They’ve been our signature and the path to acceptance and credibility, as well.  Visual communication is the lingua franca that promotes cooperation, facilitates the exchange of ideas and nurtures strong, professional relationships. It is the source of prosperity.

Public charrettes make successful use of visual communication all the time. A concept plan of a downtown revitalization study, like this from Plan NH’s Community Charrette process, contains a myriad of elements, features and relationships.  The cross-sections demonstrate the use of freehand sketches as a lingua franca to help citizens quickly understand the team’s ideas and how a word such as “revitalization” benefits citizens, commuters, visitors, shoppers, pedestrians and business people.

In a global world, it will be our ability to bridge the gaps caused by the diversity of our languages which will enable villages, towns, cities and nations to move towards the sustainable future we envision.

Scott Collard is an associate, landscape architect, and design visualization expert at Stantec.

Visual communication is the lingua franca that promotes cooperation, facilitates the exchange of ideas and nurtures strong relationships.

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