I remember my time as a kid, eagerly waiting for the clock to strike 8 pm as I sat excitedly in front of the television waiting for the airing of nature documentaries in the early 2000s, back before Netflix was a thing. I vividly remember this episode on eagles, the magnificent bird of prey soaring high above forest canopies and amongst the great peaks. There was a scene where they mentioned the eyesight of these birds are eight times greater than the human, while simultaneously being able to see and distinguish more colours than human beings can comprehend. My curious little mind back then began to go wild. What would it be like if you can see like eagles? How would we describe this experience to others? Would we even notice it in the first place? What if colours look different to everyone? What if red is different to all of us? What if all along, the colours we see are a relative construct, built from pre-scripted meaning that individuals attach to it?
How much of what we speak informs the way we think, the lenses through which we see the world? As it turns out, there had been studies examining the relationship between the words we speak and the thoughts we project.
The Sapir Whorf Hypothesis started from the observation of the Eskimo’s vocabulary of ice by American anthropological linguist Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. They argue that living in the Arctic regions with plenty of snow and ice, the Eskimos have developed more terms to express the nuanced quality and variations of ice than any other cultures and is hence more sensitive to these very nuances.
Whorf also mentioned that this could possibly reflect the needs of those who speak it in order to define their perceived reality and heritage, with words that are arguably ‘untranslatable’ to other languages from distinctly different cultures and environments. He suggested that language is not a mere reproduction of our thoughts but plays a significant role in shaping them.
For example, the Chinese glyphs originated from the bone script, which I’d like to think of as the original icons. I can’t help but wonder how these visuo-graphic representation of the world around the Chinese has shaped the manner in which we interact. From the numerous superstitions that arise from the shape of individual glyphs to Chinese traditions that seem to be an interplay between the visual and spoken.
Of course, in a time where any lines drawn between cultures that suggest inequality in the ability to perceive the thoughts of other cultures are becoming an increasingly uncomfortable topic; this hypothesis has been debunked by numerous linguists and anthropologists. I think this still begs the question, how much more are we not seeing? Are there new modes of thinking once we start shifting the lenses we put on? How much of what we think is informed by the macro factors that stem from our culture, society or even the language we speak? This opens up a whole new world of opportunities and potential to think from outside our frame of reality.
Creatives have used it as the root of thought experiments since the time the hypothesis was coined. It has generated numerous movies and books such as ‘Arrival’ by the American sci-fi film by director Denis Villeneuve, the Hainish Cycle, an award-winning series of books by the celebrated American author Ursula K. Le Guin, and even the computer I am using right now as I type this.
The first computers with a screen only displayed information as a bunch of codes, often indecipherable by the average consumer. It was not until the early 80s that the Graphical User Interface (GUI) introduced the metaphorical icons we know of today. Desktop ‘files’ started looking like actual files, the removal of ‘documents’ was done by dropping them into a ‘bin’. Even the name of ‘desktop’ was a metaphor for an actual desktop! The rest is history, this had revolutionized the language that was developed and adopted by a new generation of consumers that simply associated what they already knew in the physical world to the brand new digital space. Can you imagine a ‘tool’ in photoshop for ‘brushing’ that’s not a ‘brush’? Can you imagine designing in Figma only to realize you cannot add ‘shadows’, round ‘corners’ nor program gestures to ‘swipe’, which originated from the flipping of books, or ‘scroll’, which originated from… scrolls. In fact, look at your taskbar right now, how many icons, tools, and names can you spot that are metaphors from the real world?
Undoubtedly, this metaphorical associations that made digital icons easy to understand and adopt back when the first GUI was introduced, is wildly successful. In the current age when the newer generations are born and raised with technology, where such direct associations are arguably not as needed, what else other than these metaphorical icons can we build? Beyond UI/UX, what would this bring to design? And if the design ‘language’ is to ultimately convey intent, what happens if language is lost?
I came across an interesting example while listening to the design and architectural podcast, 99 percent invisible. In New Mexico desert, there lies an underground repository for nuclear waste named the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). In time to come, WIPP will be sealed and left alone. The dangerous nature of the radioactive substances spurred the question of safety and how the danger of these substances could be communicated to sentient life 10’000 years into the future.
Within that timeframe, empires will come and go, entire cultures will rise and fall, current languages will become obsolete or twisted to the extent where it may become impossible to decipher for future life. How then do we communicate with these beings from a drastically different culture and worldview, with languages that we cannot begin to comprehend?
A panel consisting of anthropologists, linguists, geologists, architects, astrophysicists, artists and writers was then formed with the sole purpose of communicating the dangers that lie within the WIPP. Symbols such as the crossbones and its associated meaning will probably change, like how it is no longer seen as a symbol of revival like it once was. Reading sequences of future generations may defy our linear reading pattern and hence visual storytelling such as comic strips may become an issue, foreboding architecture with thorns raising from the ground may not evoke the same sense of aversion as it does now etc. There was even a suggestion to genetically mutate cats to turn green, leveraging on the power of word-of-mouth and folklore to deter future humans from nearing the facility! I can only imagine how unattractive hulked-up cats would be but would that deter me from nearing the facility? Perhaps not. If it were you, how would YOU design for communicating the dangers of the WIPP to future human beings — people who may not have any similarities to us in the frame through which they see the world?
I’ll leave you with the following thought experiment, be sure to notice how YOUR current worldview shapes this process. Think of a macro noun, adjective, or verb that we commonly use. Now imagine a world where that no longer exists or has never existed. What would this new world be like? Would the people in this world think any differently? How would this potentially affect their way of life, behaviors or the society formed by these new people? How would these then inform what is designed for these individuals?
The purpose of the DesLens series of articles is to serve as thought experiments on various lenses that designers can put while exploring their works or life. These thought experiments seek to seed questions for designers, to continuously build upon our approach and may come from a variety of different fields such as psychology, sociology, architecture etc. It complements the multifaceted exploration channels that designers use while exploring in order to connect the dots that are uncovered along the way.
The Sapir Whorf Hypothesis- https://stanford.library.sydney.edu.au/archives/spr2015/entries/relativism/supplement2.html
Bressler Group, Sapir Whorf Hypothesis and design — https://youtu.be/aoy_xpwOmdY
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant — https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/ten-thousand-years/