The Naturalist
Symbolic Gestures
What National Park Service images tell us.


Ken Burns has a new film coming out. In September, the documentarian presents The National Parks: America's Best Idea on PBS. If Burns' fans are excited, they can hardly be surprised. The guy's obsessed with America. More specifically, he's obsessed with the things that make America America. His previous films have explored its figures (Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Jefferson), objects (the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge), events (the Civil War, Lewis and Clark's exploration of the West), and cultural products (jazz, baseball). Consider this list and a film on the country's feelings about the land where all this happens begins to feel less like the logical next in line, and more like one that's long overdue. No offense to jazz, but come on.

According to its Web site, The National Parks is "a visual feast." It features "some of the most extensive, breathtaking images of the national parks system every [sic, PBS!] captured on film." The story of America's treasured parks rolls out "against the most breathtaking backdrops imaginable." In other words, America's national parks are pretty.

Yes, images of the parks' canyons and caves, glaciers and geysers, waterfalls and wildlife are pleasing visuals. They make great jigsaw puzzles and calendars. But for some of the system's most intriguing visuals, you don't even need to visit a park. Go, instead, to the Web site of the Harpers Ferry Center

The Center serves as the interpretive design center of the National Park Service — NPS for short. The West Virginia town once produced firearms for the U.S. government (its arsenal famously raided by John Brown at the start of the Civil War); today it produces models and museum exhibits and audio tours for NPS sites. "Do you have an exhibit or furnishings project that is stalled because park staff are just too busy to do the research?" the site asks. "Harpers Ferry Center curators have researched projects from forts to stores to saloons at parks from Alaska to the Virgin Islands." 

As part of its surprising transparency (as a whole, the site makes a fascinating destination for anyone interested in how museums and parks and historic sites work), HFC provides tutorials, tools, and general insight on the process of interpreting America's preserves. This includes the NPS symbols.

Let me explain. You know this man and woman, right? 

When they're not in the bathroom or parking in a handicapped space, they're riding elevators and looking for baggage claim and seeking information on hotels and archaically looking for a land line.

They go outside, too. Even been hiking? Camping? Some of these images are probably familiar to you, even if you've never been to a national park — they're often used on the state and local level, too. The images tell you where you can pitch your tent. Eat. The usual.

Images like these are called pictograms (NPS refers to theirs as pictographs). Their purpose is obvious to most of us: On maps and signs, they indicate where to find or do some thing. Eat here, not there. Start your hike here, and stay out of there.

This round-headed man's ubiquitous presence on the visual landscape belies his very particular origin. He was born in the 1920s to Austrian philosopher and social scientist Otto Neurath. A member of the collection of philosophers known as the Vienna Group, Neurath helped develop the theory of logical positivism, a marriage of rationalism and empiricism, of knowledge gained through reason and that gained through experience. For Neurath, the inconsistencies and changing nature of verbal language made it a poor medium for the transmission of knowledge; he sought instead a uniform visual communication system that relied on observation and experience. Working largely with Gernd Arntz — a socialist German artist who depicted the working class in abstract, woodcut figures — Neurath created the International System of Typographic Picture Education, or Isotype, and through it the classic silhouette figure.

Neurath used the Isotypes largely to convey statistical information. Those charts that use, say, eight silhouettes to indicate New York City's population of eight million people, and four for L.A.'s four million residents? Neurath's idea. All kinds of information could be conveyed through isotypes; Arntz himself created over 4,000, including many of natural objects.

By the late 1960s, variations of "Helvetica Man" (as design critic Ellen Lupton has dubbed him) spanned the globe. Governments and organizers of large events — particularly those that attracted international crowds, like World's Fairs and Olympic games — developed individualized graphic systems to facilitate foot and motorized navigation in their transit systems and on their grounds. Variations were so widespread that in 1974 the U.S. Department of Transportation partnered with the American Institute of Graphic Arts to compare the disparate systems and come up with a single version. The team studied 28 symbol groups from bodies and agencies including the Las Vegas Airport, Swedish park system, Netherlands Railroad, and Olympics of Tokyo, Mexico, Munich, Montreal, and Sapporo. The collection — presented in Symbol Signs: The System of Passenger/Pedestrian Oriented Symbols Developed for the U.S. Department of Transportation — is fascinating for both the variety (21 versions of the coffee shop) and subtle differences (the Dallas and Seattle airports included spoons in their restaurant symbols). The project gave us the most common pictograms we see today — those airport icons listed above, as well as the symbols for parking and do not enter and smoking and no smoking.

The pictographs currently used by the National Park Service are a set developed by Meeker and Associates — a New York-based graphic and environmental design firm. Park visitors typically tend to be exposed to only a handful at time, but see them all at once and the breadth is striking. There are, for instance, several different ways to encounter wildlife:

A few things to do with wood:

More than one way to get from here to there:

Several ways to interact with fish: 

And, of course, many ways to be injured:

But how, exactly, does a simple picture go about telling you, "Be careful here. It's cold, and sometimes ice forms on the roof, and it can fall off, and it can be sharp, and that can hurt you"? Neurath developed his isotypes with two principles in mind: reduction and consistency. In "Reading Isotype" — a Design Issues article written by Lupton in conjunction with the 1987 Cooper Union exhibition "Global Sinage: Semiotics and the Language of International Pictures" — she writes that the silhouette suggests an object's shadow, which is "made without a human intervention, a natural cast rather than a cultural interpretation." This gives the image authority: "The implicit, rhetorical function of reduction is to suggest that the image has a natural, scientific relationship to its object, as if it were a natural, necessary essence rather than a culturally learned sign."

As far as consistency, well, Falling Ice means nothing if it has no relation to Falling Rocks. "[S]tylistic consistency gives the effect of an ordered, self-sufficient 'language'," Lupton writes. "The repetition of line weights, shapes, boldness, and detail suggests the presence of a logically developed system, a uniform language of visual forms."

Of course some knowledge is ultimately required — you must be aware of ice and gravity before a silhouette and adjacent images can convey the concept. This is where problems can arise. Looking at 

you can easily deduce that this indicates a place to view seals. That's the way the average person interacts with seals. See

and it's clear you should avoid this place. Rattlesnakes, we know, are dangerous.

But what to make of this?

I assumed this image was a warning, like rattlesnake — you're often warned about bears on camping trips. It actually indicates a place to view the animal, like seals.

These understandings — those both correct and incorrect — are grounded in culture, and are far from objective. The image of a seal on a map made for hunters, for example, might indicate something very different. In that way, a communication system that relies on such cultural knowledge becomes a very logical one for the NPS. We think of the Service as preserving nature. It does. But it preserves a very particular kind of nature. Unlike the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or U.S. Forest Service (USFS), NPS parks represent more than ecological value. The federal government has carefully chosen these parks in large part for their views, for their natural features, for their beauty — aspects, in other words, not intrinsic to the sites, but imposed on them. NPS holdings, in fact, include many non-natural sites such as Eleanor Roosevelt's New York house, South Carolina's Fort Sumpter, and South Dakota's Mount Rushmore. NPS maps and signs provide the context that helps us get at the pictographs' meaning; their aim is to facilitate enjoyment. Let us help you see a bear, they're saying. And watch out for rattlesnakes!

Indeed, consider the pictographs in aggregate, and a visual language of leisure emerges.

Picture-based communication systems attempt to facilitate understanding across culture and class and all kinds of divisions. But the NPS pictograph's create a second layer of egalitarianism. By reducing all the possible things one can do in nature, the pictographs seem to suggest that all these things are possible for one. Scuba diving and spelunking and rock climbing and ski jumping each become as realistic an option as swimming and walking and eating. They require technical know-how, sure, but somehow that seems less a hurdle than it may have before. If Helvetica Man can do it, why can't I?

The pictographs are compelling. But they can not, of course, replace the experience of actually visiting a national park. They instead actually become a celebration of that experience. You can watch The National Parks in your living room. You can hang an Ansel Adams calendar in your office. Or you can get outside and

24 July 2009

Jesse Smith is managing editor of The Smart Set.

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