On Representation in a Digital World

9 May

Maybe I should represent this post with a printing press.

Williamsburg recreated printing press letters

Recently, I’ve been struggling to get my head around how we, graphically, represent our work.  I work at an accounting firm, and was asked to assist with the design of our new trade show banners.  There are a lot of schools of thought as to what should go into a trade show display, but they all seem to agree that, within a second of looking at your booth, someone should be able to understand what you do.

I wanted to find an image that was shorthand for accountant – the way a wrench means a mechanic and a stethoscope means a doctor.  So, I thought about everything that we do and tried to match each task up with an image.  Turns out, they’re all the same image: someone hunched over a computer.  For anyone who works in my company, from a tax preparer to someone in HR, a pictographic representation of their work would be the same – for me, in the marketing department, too.  I didn’t want to put a picture of someone staring at a computer screen on our banners (didn’t seem too inviting), so I copped out and put “CPAs and business consultants” in big letters with pictures of our shiniest, happiest team members.

“That’s great Maggie, and I spend my day in front of a computer, too, but how does this relate to technology and social media and all of those other things that this blog is supposed to be about?”

Pac Man infographic

Best infographic ever. Short, sweet, to the point.

What a wonderful question, thank you for asking…  Recently there’s been a move towards the visualization of all kinds of information.  From the impact of the royal wedding to how to get hired at Google, infographics are no longer a fringe way of sharing information; but have become a mainstream form of communication.

Increasingly, pictographic representations are becoming part of the way that we share information about ourselves, too.  Vizualize.me creates personalized infographics based on LinkedIn user profiles.  And, any number of organizations, including the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media + Learning Competition, are seeking to develop a way of graphically representing job skills and life achievements.  These images are generally conceptualized as badges and mirror the ones on scout uniforms – they’re simple graphic representations of our accomplishments.  They’re pretty, gamified portrayals of our work.

Boy scout badges

Look… not a computer in the bunch.

If you made badges of my skills and accomplishments, they’d pretty much all look the same: someone typing on a computer.  Interestingly, in all the various badge systems that I’ve browsed on the web, I haven’t seen too many that show someone typing on a computer.  From what I’ve seen, the badges represent current skills as they used to be performed.  For example, public relations is a megaphone, but I do PR work and I’ve never used a megaphone to do it…

These badges don’t accurately represent knowledge work as it’s currently performed.  I can’t figure out if this is designer nostalgia or laziness or the fact that the old tools associated with the work that we used to do are so ingrained in our culture that they’re the best way to communicate the work that we do now.  Maybe it’s a combination of the three.

Questions of the day: What kind of work do you do?  What does that look like?  What would badge for doing it look like?  Are those two things at all the same?

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