Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

January 20, 2015

Thinking in Anything but Pictures

I'm paraphrasing Temple Grandin and turning on its ear the notion that all persons on the autism spectrum are predominantly or exclusively visual thinkers. (In fairness, Grandin has since come to agree; see the "Develop Talents in Specialized Brains" section in the updated synopsis of her landmark book.)

Many a time I have needed to use the facilities in a public place and, when confronted with only symbolic or pictorial gender depictions, ended up walking into the women's washroom. I've also put together IKEA furniture backwards (or not at all) because the ostensibly clear, step-by-step sequence of pictures, arrows and what-have-you registers naught in my brain.

Visual thinkers are the majority, and as such their world view is the most prevalent. This usually amounts to little more than a minor inconvenience for people like me and is perhaps the source of an amusing anecdote or ten. There are, however, instances in which visual-thinker domination left unchecked might lead to quite serious issues of public safety. Along those lines, here's an e-mail I just sent to Ontario's Minister of Transportation:



I recently read that the Ministry aims to phase out all text on its road signs and replace it with visual symbols.

You might want to rethink this. Although many people take in symbolic or pictorial information best, not all of us do. Example: my stove uses pictures to delineate the different burners, and after turning on the wrong burner one too many times I had to create my own, text-based signs: "left front," "right rear," etc.

I'm not a driver myself, but I have had the experience of being on a bus, seeing a pictorial sign out the window and having no idea what it meant. Fortunately, I was just a passenger.

In the interest of road safety, I'm sure the MTO wishes to provide drivers with clear, concise, easy-to-digest information, particularly when they're travelling at high speeds on expressways. Converting to a picture-only format may indeed simplify matters for some drivers, but for those of us whose primary means of processing information isn't symbolic it would at best increase processing time and at worst create utter confusion.

I don't drive, but I'll bet there are people like me who do. I wouldn't want to be the guy speeding down the 401 on a snowy January night who doesn't understand or misinterprets a picture that's meant to convey something like, "Snowplows and salt trucks ahead. Slow down."

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