European language and Chinese language developed in a totally different way.
In the west, our start point was a spoken language.
We started with different sorts of sounds for different things.
Then these sounds became a spoken language: words.
And we made up visual symbols for the sounds.
The alphabet is 26 sound-symbols.
So we could write them down and you’d know what each word sounded like.
Whatever language we spoke, French, German, English, we could read each other’s sounds out loud.
Even though we didn’t have a clue what the words meant.
It’s exactly the opposite in Chinese.
Their written language is based not on sounds, but on pictures.
So the start point for the word ‘house’ is a picture of a house.
The start point for the word ‘bird’ is a picture of a bird.
Not the sound for ‘house’ or ‘bird’.
This means that although the Chinese have many spoken languages (Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkein, Teochew) they only have one written language.
So they can write to each other even when they can’t talk to each other.
Because their written language is based on pictures not sounds.
So what does it all have to do with us?
The study of language.
Language is communication, and that’s our job.
And communication isn’t just words.
Apparently, only 25% of what we communicate is verbal.
And yet we act as if words are all there is.
Look at the job title: copywriter.
And yet, on average, only 5% of people who turn the page read the headline.
And 5% of people who read the headline read the copy.
So the job title ‘communicator’ would make more sense than ‘copywriter’.
By understanding the different ways in which people communicate we’re studying basic semiotics.
This means we’re not just stuck with words anymore.
There are more effective ways to get things into people’s heads.
Some time ago I saw a press campaign that opened my eyes.
Because it changed the rules.
It was done in the UK, but it communicated the Chinese way.
Using pictures as language, not words.
It was for Land Rover.
It was done, I think, by Malcolm Gaskin and Neil Patterson.
And it had a picture of the Land Rover, diagonally across the page, on a 45 degrees hill.
Plus two headlines, one across the bottom of the ad, and one running down the side.
The headline across the bottom said, “Is this a Land Rover going uphill forwards?”
(Then you turned the ad on its side)
The other headline said, “Or a Land Rover going uphill backwards?”
Very nice ad, but that wasn’t the brilliant part.
The absolutely brilliant part for me was the body copy.
There wasn’t any.
No words, just symbols, all around the outside borders.
All the information had been done as little icons.
So I got each point, fast and simple: 4 Wheel-Drive, 10 cwt Load, Differential-Lock, Winch, etc.
Each point was as easy to read as a road sign.
And road signs are the purest form of visual communication.
Because they have to be instantly understood by everyone, whatever language they speak.
And, of course, road signs are perfect for talking to drivers.
The people who buy Land Rovers.
I would have given that campaign the Gold award for body copy.
Simply because it changed the rules.
It wasn’t locked into the usual big black impenetrable block of words.
It was communication in a totally fresh way.
And that’s what made it really creative.
If people don’t read copy, let’s do something different.
Don’t just keep doing what doesn’t work.
Sure we have to get the information across, but that doesn’t have to mean words.
Creativity isn’t just about looking for new things.
It’s looking for new ways of using things.
And some of those things, like the Chinese language, may be thousands of years old.