LavaCon Session Summary: Alan J. Porter on Developing a Global Language

Day 1 of Lavacon 2011

Developing a Global Language: When Words are Not Enough

Alan J. Porter has an eclectic background, and describes himself as a “scribbler of books, comics, articles, and other stuff”. He’s written about topics ranging from James Bond to garage door openers.

Localization is important to capture markets, but translation is very expensive. Thus, if we can create universal content that does requires little or no translation, the benefits are obvious. Images often have a much greater longevity than words do. For example, if we look at the cave paintings from 32,000 years ago, we understand them and feel an instant connection. Yet, if the average reader looks at an Old English book from 1200 years ago, it is almost incomprehensible. Our current text-based focus has been around for only a short time compared to visual representations.

Images can often convey much more information than is present, because they have become iconic. For example, the famous “kiss” photo from V-E Day is recognized immediately, although the picture itself does not indicate anything about V-E Day.

Images, of course, can be used poorly. Alan showed some US government images that were meant to provide safety instructions, but made no sense whatsoever. You must also know the cultural context of your images. A swastika means something dramatically different in India than it does in the USA or Europe.

Poor use of images can have literally disastrous results. Alan showed an image, created by engineers, that was supposed to convey the dangers that might arise if the O-ring seals on the space shuttle were exposed to temperatures of less than 27 F. It’s incomprehensible. In contrast, the famous graphic by Charles Minard showing the arc of Napoleon’s march to Moscow effectively conveys the story much more effectively than a huge number of words could do.

Often instructions can be conveyed much more effectively as images than as words. Ikea and Lego use pictorial instructions to great effect.  Thoughtful use of color enhances pictorial instructions. You can use colors to indicate the tool that you should use, the part that you should operate on, and the task that you should do.

Videos are increasingly being used to provide instructions and as marketing aids. If you place a properly tagged, well-produced video on YouTube, you can attract viewers. Sound can be highly evocative, because we are conditioned to associate certain sounds with certain actions. For example, a cash register sound is used in some contexts, even though no one uses that type of cash register anymore.

The big takeaway: Communication cannot be restricted to text. If you are not considering the  use of images, sounds, and videos in your communications, you are missing significant opportunities.


Twitter: @AlanJPorter (personal account), @4JsGroup (business account)

Business site:


Sarah Maddox

12 years ago

Hallo Lois
Thank you for writing this up! I can’t be at LavaCon. It’s rather a long way from Sydney, Australia, where I’m based. So it’s great to read such a detailed report of Alan’s session.
Cheers, Sarah

Lois Patterson

12 years ago

Sarah, it’s a delight to hear from you. I remember hearing your presentation at WritersUA in Seattle in 2009. I’m a devoted fan of JIRA, Bamboo, and Confluence at work – seriously.

Herman Carreno

12 years ago

Thank you for sharing your experience here. I really value it.

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