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The Easy, Simple Loaded Arrow

Posted on Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 2:15 PM

Using arrows to convey your message.

Don't be upset if it is difficult for you to find a symbol with which to "illustrate" an idea. Nobody thinks it easy except cartoonists. It does not mean you are a bad artist. You may well be a lousy artist, but being an artist has nothing to do with it. You need no magic, no artistic talent -- just clear, analytical thought. Visuals only catapult information off the page into the viewer's mind if they are loaded with significant meaning. Therefore, you must first define the heart of the idea so that you can then focus on what is worthy of visualization.

Once you know the point of the message, you can start searching for its cogent image. Forget being "creative." You are not looking for a florid visual with which to make a splash -- there are too many meaningless visual splashes all around as it is, and who is swayed by such efflorescence? Instead, you are searching for something that will make the point of the message startling, understandable, memorable, persuasive.

It is so hard to know where to start thinking -- let alone choosing -- the right image because they are infinite. Relax. The simpler and more forthright, the better. Because its success depends on the interpretation that your target will draw from it, that point must be obvious and understandable at first glance.

To Trigger Your Visual Thinking

Arrows are the easiest shapes to handle, and they have infinite meanings. Imagine in your mind a bunch of simple arrows: UP, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT. They are obvious primitive direction signs. So what? So that is the nub of the idea! Just the nub. Now imagine arrows going IN and OUT. More difficult because you have to create a context of background. Plain left and right is cheating. Don't you realize that you understand the symbols without even thinking? That is rich communication! That obvious symbolic "THIS WAY" shape has marvelous possibilities of interpretation when you just think about it. Just draw an arrow and try.

The flat shape is obvious. Consider the flat shape some other way: like a tube, or as if it were folded, or it could be built up and three-dimensionalized. The fundamental direction would tell the basic fact, but the tubing or the folding or the lumping give contextual meaning. Enrichment of meaning. Here are a handful of variations on the basic arrow shape.

Study them slowly to define the meanings. When you've figured out a dozen or so, you'll realize that you can think about all this the other way: the content could well represent the arrow, if you have twisted it the right way.

Jan V. White is author of the classic Editing by Design, Third Edition (Allworth Press, available on Amazon). Eight of his other books are now in the public domain and available for free at http://openlibrary.org/books. He may be reached at janvw2@aol.com.

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