November 28, 2019

On the Need to Diversify Standardized Visuals and "Re-Image" the World

Whether we realize it or not, widely copied and distributed visual elements like graphics and photos represent and shape our consciousness. With the rise of diverse emoji, there’s never been more momentum to give these “standard” visuals a much-needed update.

Sharing the Space is Important

Icons are distilled representations of reality, usually used to efficiently communicate and be easily recognized in highly visible places. Copied and distributed often enough, they repeatedly influence our consciousness, both online and off.

“Space also includes the digital world, which unlike physical space, is theoretically limitless.The digital realm is governed by an audience’s access and attention, and value is determined by the reach and visibility of competing content,” says Erika Kim, head curator for the Noun Project. “Quality representation and visibility in these spaces — especially public or highly visible space — implies legitimacy and value, which translates to influence.”

In her article on gendered depictions of different jobs and roles in icons, she lists three ways graphic designers can even the playing field:

1. Make equal depictions in terms of quantity and quality: Male and female equivalents of a given role such as astronaut, as well as even application of design principles to avoid unintended meaning (which elements are larger, in front, or placed in a position of authority or power?)

2. Appropriate depictions:  Aside from ending the blatant perpetuation of outdated stereotypes (say, anachronistic or inappropriate depictions of women in certain jobs), Kim encourages creating less commonly seen depictions that challenge rigid gender roles.

3. Meta Data: Consistency in the titles and tags between variations on a common image. For instance, a male and female icon titled as “business person” would have similar tags or synonyms such as ‘manager’, ‘leader’ and the like instead of a different set of meta data for each.

It’s a big lift, but it’s not that heavy

If the popularization of emoji is any indication, similar updates in diversity to standardized assets are quantum leaps, stepping stones or no big deal at all, depending on who you ask. After emojis became more widespread beyond Japan with Apple’s iOS 5 in 2011, the world adapted to using the icons in addition to just text and the more basic emoticon.

After Apple introduced racially diverse emoji in 2015, there were concerns over whether they would be abused or introduce new problems into a space that didn’t have them before. That said, some studies have shown they’ve been largely used as intended and have been a net positive for inclusiveness. Just like the many special characters than your computer is capable of producing (you’ve never heard of the interrobang‽), even if you don’t need to use them, someone else most certainly does.

Similarly, having images that represent the diverse people in the real world means a lot to those traditionally excluded from these spaces. For one, TONL is a stock photography company that features culturally diverse people. But more importantly, it represents both a demand for that diversity from paying customers, but also that there’s still room for change in seemingly calcified symbols representing objective truths.

The Takeaway

Whether it’s emoji or stock assets like photos, footage, icons and graphics, these elements are intended for wide distribution and can appear at multiple corners of online spaces, shaping our collective consciousness. This analysis isn’t the end-all be-all take on how to approach diversity in standardized visuals, and there are likely to be hurdles and friction on the way, but we recognize the need for that diversity and that the updating process is long overdue. The ever-shifting ways in which we communicate about a complex world is going to require more nuance, and that can only be conveyed by having greater diversity in our visual choices.

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