is this… “semiotics”?

(Jardí del Túria, València)

The illustrations in this picture may appear to us to be just a cute and creative set of pictograms indicating the directions of different facilities in a public park. As adults, we seek to reduce the relationship between these symbols and their observers (ourselves) to a transactional one, where the symbol simply conveys the functional meaning expected from it. In this case, directions.

However, the representation of the human characters in these pictograms should be the first indication that something else is happening here. Whereas in “adult-oriented” pictograms the human character is typically reduced to its simplest symbolic form — the stick figure –, so that the observer can immediately identify themself with the symbol, in these, the children characters feature visible gender differentiation (boy with a hat, girl with long hair) and displays of emotion and of motion. They are not an empty human shape for the adult observer to recognize themself in, but a distinct other, a friend (since children “make friends” immediately), for the child observer to connect with: therefore, the transactional minimalism of adult sign-to-person communication is replaced with the layered complexity of friendship interactions.

That these friends are just drawings on metal is irrelevant. A child’s mind is not yet so rigidly organized and includes forms of reasoning adults have (hopefully!) abandoned, such as the animistic, the teleological, and the transductive, as well as more easily falling into schizotypal-like thinking due to the underdevelopment of a theory of mind. The world seen by a child is full of personalized messages, complicated relations of causality, moods and intentions and teloi.

Immediately: is the last pictogram, the one with the cheerful girl surrounded by a vortex of arrows, trying to indicate where a specific place within the park is to be found? Or is it evoking a sort of a broader state, in which a flow surrounds and encompasses us? and, through the open mouth of the child-character, conveying that such a state is pleasurable, and desirable? What about the third one? by representing the act of urination in such a joyful mood, is it not exhorting children to revel in the most pleasurable bodily function they currently experience? and therefore to appreciate the range of sensations their own body can provide them, even the ones the adult world tries to de-emphasize? A subtext emerges: these pictograms impart important life lessons to the child reading them, by illustrating aspirational peer-like examples for the child to emulate.

Sure, perhaps the designers were just thinking of expressiveness and cuteness. But again: to a child, the intention of an adult graphic designer hired by the municipal government to help orient park visitors is wholly inscrutable, while, paradoxically, the intention of a child-character drawn on a metal sheet can feel knowable. To a child, a set of life lessons can be more easily extracted from these drawings than the utilitarian directions that they were probably trying to express.

Informa’t. Crida si tens mal. Pixa amb gust. Surt de la caixa. Posa’t on les coses flueixin.

Inform yourself. Cry loudly, if you’re in pain. Pee joyfully. Go outside the box. Be where things flow around you.

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