6th anniversary of the IAN symbol libraries

Bill Dennison ·
8 March 2010
Science Communication | 

IAN symbols

This week is the sixth anniversary of when the Integration and Application Network first posted its symbol library on its newly created website. This free, downloadable symbol library has been providing users with symbols crafted by IAN science communicators for use in constructing conceptual diagrams. These symbols are depictions of either a miniature version of something tangible (e.g., a mangrove symbol based on an actual mangrove tree) or something intangible (e.g., the conversion of dissolved nitrate into nitrogen gas, or denitrification). The symbols were created to populate conceptual diagrams that IAN science communicators use to synthesize information, communicate scientific findings, establish research priorities, or identify management actions. At IAN, we have found that these conceptual diagrams, or thought drawings, are a powerful tool in science communication. Each conceptual diagram is comprised of dozens of symbols and the symbol library was formed by collecting the symbols used in creating new conceptual diagrams. The symbols are vector-based graphics, rather than raster-based, thus they are scalable to any dimension, as they retain their colors and proportions independent of size. This means that both the symbols and conceptual diagrams created from symbols can be used in a variety of science communication products; posters, papers, newsletters, or web materials.

The creation of new symbols takes an experienced science communicator 1-2 hours per symbol, depending on the symbol complexity. There are approximately 2,500 symbols now in the IAN symbol library, and each of these symbols was created for the same simple reason—because they were needed for use in a science communication product. As a result, the symbol library has developed ‘organically’, with each additional symbol created to serve a purpose in communicating science. These new symbols were created to convey a wider breadth of knowledge. The symbols were started in Australia by the Marine Botany group at the University of Queensland. This group was communicating coastal issues as part of the Healthy Waterways campaign in SE Queensland. The first symbols were subtropical in nature, and there were lots of Australian seagrasses and mangroves as well as various Australian animals. When the Integration and Application Network was created in 2002 at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, new symbols were needed in addition to the Australian symbols. When the symbol library was put on the web six years ago, it quickly became apparent that many people from virtually every country on earth find it useful. The widespread symbol library downloads express the global need to communicate.

The symbols that were created five or ten years ago often need to be updated or revised. The development of improved techniques and standardized ways to create and edit symbols has led to process of updating and revising previous symbols in addition to creating new symbols. There are very specific symbols as well as more generic symbols. By using symbols in computer graphics programs, an ancient and fundamental communication technique is being adapted to current technology. Symbols have been used in cave drawing, storyboards, and hieroglyphics, and the web-based symbol library is a modern version of an ancient technique.

The success of the IAN symbol library prompts the consideration that a global language, based on symbols, can be created. There have been many attempts at developing a global language. When different cultures wax and wane, their language is often considered the global language, currently exemplified by English. Also, different languages have specific global uses, for example, French for diplomacy and Latin for the Catholic church. Newly created languages have even been developed for global application, e.g., Esperanto, but they have not achieved a widespread acceptance. Symbols lend themselves to a global use, as they are timeless, culturally independent and language independent. Symbols could be the vocabulary of a new global language. With the current symbol count at ~2,500, this is not enough to be considered a complete language, but it is a good way toward achieving that goal. English can be communicated with as few as 5,000 words, out of the 40,000+ available words. The symbol language will continue to grow steadily as IAN and others develop new symbols to communicate more effectively. The vision for the symbol library is to become more comprehensive with several thousand more symbols to form a global symbol language.

About the author

Bill Dennison

Dr. Bill Dennison is a Professor of Marine Science and Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). Dr. Dennison’s primary mission within UMCES is to coordinate the Integration and Application Network.

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