After a visit to Saint Petersburg, my friend Marc Parisel sent me
a picture of the delightful set of signs below—a perfect reminder
of the intrinsic limitations of visual representations. Essentially,
pictures are always ambiguous and condemned to be concrete.
More than words, which can be accurately defined in dictionaries,
pictures typically suggest different meanings to different viewers.
Look at the top left sign (and take for granted that the red circle
with its red diagonal means “don't”): what does it mean to you?
“Do not address the crowd from a soapbox”? “Do not drift away
on the river in a tub”? Or, literally, “do not point at other people
while clutching your stomach”? (In case you are still wondering,
the text under it says “do not hold rallies and demonstrations”.)
One reason for the ambiguity of pictures is their visual richness
and, consequently, lack of emphasis: different people then focus
on different things. In the third sign from the left in the top row
(and assuming the rocking horse is meant to represent animals),
do you focus on the animal, on the leash, or even on the person?
That is, does the sign mean “do not bring animals”, “do not keep
animals on a leash”, or even “do not pull too hard on the leash”?
Clearly, context and common sense will help, but all the same…
Pictures—even the schematic drawings used here—are concrete;
consequently, they are ill-suited to expressing abstract concepts.
For example, in the fifth sign from the left, again in the top row,
what level of abstraction are we to assume? That is, is this sign
meant to convey “do not play the saxophone” or more generally
“do not play musical instruments” or perhaps even “do not make
loud noises”? I was all the more confused because the next sign
(top right) looked to me like someone playing the electric guitar,
until I figured that the text under it means “do not walk around
in bathing suit” (an invitation to walk around naked, perhaps? ;–).
Text typically does a better job of expressing abstract concepts
unambiguously, even when the message is as little abstract as
“do not play music”. Still, text is not as immediate as a picture.
The optimum strategy is thus not to choose one over the other,
but to use both—as is done here, actually. Only, it is a pity that
the text under each sign is in Russian only when the exhortation
to adhere strictly to the rules is in English in addition to Russian.