Visual Signifiers of Cultures

In looking at different writing systems I tried to explore what visual signifiers made something look like it belongs to a certain culture. Through a series of experiments below I came to the conclusion that something looks like it belongs to a particular culture when it appears in a stylised manner – It may incorporate patterns, lines or shapes into a symbol. This may also include geometric as well as more fluid-like lines and shapes.

I chose an english word and then tried applying characteristics of selected languages to the visual word. I chose the word “huh” as there was a recent study and article written that  said “huh means the same thing in every language”

Each sketch in this experiment seems to be very representative of a particular culture. The characteristics of different writing systems were also combined to form a cross-cultural identity. I tried to apply these experiments into a design of some kind and discovered that the initial “english” word started losing it’s linguistic meaning.

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The word “huh” designed to look Arabic in calligraphy. The forms start resembling middle -eastern architecture, perhaps a mosque.

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With a diacritic added the form turned sideways looks like a person’s face in profile.

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Other observations of these experiments show that materials and colours  further solidifies it’s cultural meaning. The gold enhances the arabic feel. The sense of arabic also changes one’s approach to the forms. Someone may not attempt to read them until they knew it is was english. They are meaningless to non-english speakers while english speakers might assume they are not readable and so make no effort to find linguistic meaning. Arguably this may render the style Asemic.

Application of Arabic patterns

Arabic patterns are much more geometric than European patterns. They use particular kinds of repetition and rotation in that they and are often formed from rotation with 5 or 6 repetitions.

Arabic pattern (6-time rotation)

Here is an experiment I did with 6 rotations and repetition

Huh pattern1a

Some other rotation experiments

To make it more culturally meaningful I applied a middle eastern colour palette


Further exploration into this area and experiments carried out have shown improvements in execution, however these are not shown as they are the basis of further exploration for future projects.


An Investigation into Non-Verbal Communication and ideas of Universal Language

With my focus on ideas of universality, I have been looking at gestures that transcends languages and nations. Certain physical responses to emotions or experiences are universal regardless of culture or nationality.


An emoticon is a typographic version of paralinguistic features. Paralinguistics are the aspects of spoken communication that do not involve words. These may add emphasis or shades of meaning to what people say. Some definitions limit this to verbal communication that is not words.

With regards to my investigation into universal languge and gestural typography, I looked at the differences between Western and Eastern Emoticons. Western emoticons are read horizontally and the eastern emoticons are read vertically. This is reflective of their different writing systems. In the west we read left to right, and in the east they read top to bottom.

Therefore, we can conclude that the conventions of writing systems are applied elsewhere, even in a pictorial context when there is an overlap of word and image. As a result, pictorially eastern emoticons when typed are facing forward and Western emoticons are sideways. Japanese Emoticons express more details than the western emoticons.

I also found out that in East Asia people focus mainly on the eyes when trying to decypher expressions and emotions. As such the emoticons reflect this as well ^.^ (happy) and ;_; (sad), while in Western emoticons they focus on the mouth 🙂 (happy) and 😦 (sad)

(•ˋ _ ˊ•) An angry kaomoji face.

Kaomoji emoticons are similar to smileys, but they often incorporate Japanese characters. While they originated in Japan, Kaomoji emoticons are now used in many other countries as well. Because of the wide range of characters available, Kaomoji smileys can be used to express emotions, actions, and characters with more detail than traditional western emoticons.

The First Emoticons published

What is interesting is that in 1881 the US humour magazie Puck published the first emoticons before computers.


Letterpress printing would have been used to create this.

Other Emoticons that Express Feelings


 is a Chinese character that is commonly used as an emoticon in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. However, it is also used by non-Chinese speaking countries as well, especially in Korea and Japan. Because it resembles a person with an open mouth, it is used to convey distress, helplessness, disappointment, reluctancy, shock, dislike, defeat, embarrassment, and the like.


The original meaning of 囧 is “window,” and is pronounced jiŏng or jiong3 (Pinyin) in Mandarin Chinese, but is rarely used in this context anymore.

It is part of the ever growing Martian Language (火星文) popular among Chinese netizens and is also closely related to the orz phenomenon.囧



orz (also known as OTL) is an emoticon used to express one’s feeling of hopelessness in jest, often as a result of failure. The text visually represents a person kneeling on the ground with face down; “O” represents the head, “R” as the arms and “Z” as the torso. In East Asian cultures, the shape of “Orz” resembles a body gesture that signifies frustration or feeling of despair, typically as a result of one’s own failure though it can be used to convey frustration towards others similar to facepalm.


The physical gesture of “kneeling on the ground in defeat” has been previously portrayed through popular films, TV shows and mangas, both for comedic and dramatic effect. When used in a serious light, this posture is also known asdogeza, a sign of self-abasement used in formal apologies and to request great favors from persons of higher social status.

Attempts at a Universal Written Language

Blissymbolics Writing System

Blissymbolics were developed by Charles K. Bliss (1897-1985). Bliss originally called his invention “Semantography” and intended for it to be used as a universal written language which would enable speakers of different languages to communicate with one another. Since 1971 Blissymbolics have been used mainly as a communication aid for people with communication, language and learning difficulties. Such people have limited or no ability to use ordinary spoken and/or written language but manage to learn Blissymbolics.

Notable features

  • Blissymbolics consists of over 2,000 basic symbols which can be combined together to create a huge variety of new symbols.
  • The symbols can be formed into sentences and their order is based on English word order
  • The symbols are made up of simple shapes designed to be easy to write.
  • Blissymbolics are used in over 33 countries.


LoCos Writing System

LoCoS is a set of pictograms and ideograms, or “pictures” and “idea-symbols”. Its name comes from the phrase “Lover’s Communication System”, a title inspired by the hope that people from around the world could use LoCoS to communicate in the effortless manner of lovers.

The creators of LoCos belive that it is easy to lean and is an ideal way to communicate with people who speak a different language. They also belive that in the future it may even allow human beings and computers to interact more easily.

Each word in LoCoS is represented by a symbol formed from simple shapes. LoCoS has several fundamental symbols. For example, “Sun” or “day” is represented by the outline of a circle, and the concept of “feeling” is shown by a heart shape. The idea of existence at a particular point in time or space (the “point existence”) is shown by a single dot. It was inspired by the use of dots to indicate locations on a map.


Locos also has emoticon-like symbols and expressions. The Heart-shape incorporates human expressions.

anger forbearance happiness

Both LoCos and Blissymbols use the heart to convey the concept of emotion or feeling.

Asemic Writing study update

So while researching more on Asemic Writing I took a look at the movement’s Facebook page ( and wrote a note asking anyone for assistance in locating or pointing to academic writing on the subject.

Michael Jacobson, one of the main authors on asemic writing responded to my request and forwarded me Tim Gaze’s email for more information on the subject.

Tim Gaze is the publisher of Asemic Magazine ( )which is dedicated to asemic writing. He also edited a book with Michael Jacobson called An Anthology of Asemic Writing.

He also has a small press called asemic editions editions which is devoted to publishing works of asemic writing, abstract comics, Lettrisme & similar. It is based in South Australia.

So I wrote to Tim Gaze and to my great joy he wrote me back with a trove of information on asemic writing including the names of some notable practitioners and texts on the subject.

This is a great start to this project and it is a lot to process but I am really excited and can’t wait to see where all this carries me.

Experiment 2

Idea: A Universal language that is gestural and typographic at the same time.

For this experiment I will be Identifying gestures that are already Universal. Then I will produce a list of bodily signs that mean the same thing in all cultures.

So with “gestures” as my main focus I did a mind map showing my thought process.

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Then while doing a search for “Universal Language”, I came across an article on about a study done on non-verbal communication at the University of Chicago in 2008.

According to the study, “When people can only communicate with hand gestures, they speak a kind of “universal language”.”

“The gestures that people produce when they speak are not universal but vary as a function of language – in some ways, this makes the phenomenon we’re describing that much more interesting since speakers of different languages routinely use their hands in different ways but, when asked to talk with their hands and not their mouths, they all end up looking alike,” said Prof Susan Goldin-Meadow.

So with that in mind I started looking at the representation of hands in ancient cultures.



Fragment of a Stela

Late Dynasty 18, ca. 1327-1295 B.C.
From Thebes, Deir el-Bahri

Gift of the Egypt Exploration Fund, 1905 (05.4.2)

Disciption: Userhat, shown here with his wife Nefertari, testifies to his own good qualities and to his trust in his god, probably Amun. As Userhat was a priest in the mortuary cults of both Amenhotep III and Tutankhamun, the couple must have lived during the later Eighteenth Dynasty. The complex layering of relief and the style of the figures demonstrate the influence the art of Amarna had at Thebes.

See more at:


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Hands are held up with palms facing forward suggesting praise or worship.


Round-topped Stela of Wenenkhu

New Kingdom, Ramesside
Dynasty 19
reign of Ramesses II
ca. 1275–1237 B.C.
Country of Origin Egypt, Upper Egypt; Thebes, Deir el-Medina
H. 45 cm (17 11/16 in)
Rogers Fund, 1967

Description: Wenenkhu and his son Penpakhenty worship the god Re-Harakhty as he crosses the sky in his barque. From the pyramid chapel at Deir el-Medina, Thebes. – See more at:

– See more at:


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Source of images from

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Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies

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In my sketchbook I identified two hand glyphs.