A view from Dave Trott: How do people work?
A view from Dave Trott

How do people work?

Paul Rand is one of the most famous American graphic designers.

He designed logos for UPS, Westinghouse, ABC, Enron, NeXT, Amex.

But the corporate redesign that really put him on the map was IBM.

Everything from stationery to buildings, trucks to business cards.

There was one particular IBM poster he did that dominated everything else.

And it was so basic as to be almost embarrassing.

It was just a simple graphic of an eye, a bee and the letter M.

Getting people to read the eye as I and the bee as B had an amazing impact on everyone.

Because Rand had just plugged back into the birth of written language.

It happened around 5,000 years ago and it’s called the Rebus principle.

Obviously, spoken language evolved from grunts and hand signals.

But there was no way to record spoken language.

For thousands of years, man had been making drawing of things on the walls of caves.

But the game-changing thought didn’t happen until the Rebus principle.

Gradually the picture came to represent not just the thing itself, but the spoken sound of the word for the thing.

Over time the picture was simplified so it didn’t even look like the original thing, it just became an abstract symbol for the sound.

So a picture of a fish became the word “fish”, then it became a symbol for the sound “fish”, then simplified until it was just a symbol for the letter F.

So the Rebus effect was the relationship between the representational and the abstract.

We can see it in the text-speak that has naturally developed over phone messages: “Do it 2day”, or “I 8 her”, or “RU alone?”

We naturally slot back into the Rebus form of written language, using symbols for sounds that have no relationship to the original definition.

Art directors appreciate this because, being more visually inclined, they like visual puns.

Gordon Smith liked the feature in the Daily Mail called Dingbats.

It had symbols from which you would have to deduce a well-known phrase.

It might be a number 1 with a number 8 under it.

So the phrase would be “One over the eight”.

Or maybe the word “secret” repeated vertically with the highest one circled.

The phrase would be “Top secret”.

That simple little game shows our minds haven’t evolved that far from the minds that developed written language 5,000 years ago.

What use is this historical knowledge to us in this age of technology?

Why should we even be interested in the distant past?

Well, as Bill Bernbach said: “It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”

We can see it used in Milton Glazer’s universally recognised: “I (heart) NY.”

The heart symbol means we don’t even have to speak English to understand it.

He got the idea from initials carved into love hearts on trees, or sprayed as graffiti on New York walls, the way it has been since Roman times.

We should be interested because, as Rory Sutherland said: “We spend so much time thinking about how marketing works, how social media works, how targeting and technology works, we’ve taken our minds off a more important question: how do people work?”

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three