A world of icons, not alphabets

Reviving a dead language is not normally a recommended practice in communications: road signs in Latin (say, NON DEXTER VICISSIM instead of “No Right Turn”) are certain to cause more accidents than not, and billboards written in runic Old Norse will do little to increase sales and a great deal to confuse and annoy pedestrians.

Undaunted by such conventional advice, graphic designer Frida Larios has set about reviving and redesigning the pictographic language of the Maya civilization for use in the twenty-first century. Originally from El Salvador, Larios got her MA at the Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, where she began her love affair with Mayan hieroglyphics in 2004. The “New Maya Language” that she developed is comprised of simple pictograms reworked and combined to communicate more complex concepts, and these images in turn are used in logos for Central American companies and in signage for regional historic sites.

Larios’s longer-run vision is not driven by the needs of institutions, however, but by the needs of people. She is acutely aware of the immense gap in the region between urbanized descendents of Spanish settlers and impoverished native communities in which modern-language literacy is all too rare. As she writes in a recent photo essay for the Indigo Design Network:

My ideal would be a world with no alphabetical words—where icons were the only language. This would help bridge the gap between illiteracy and emotional comprehension of a message. Some indigenous peoples who don’t know how to read or write the Spanish language nor their own heritage hieroglyphics’ codex, feel close to the New Maya Language pictograms because they don’t need to know the alphabet or numbers to understand it. It just comes to them naturally.

A 100% pictographic language bridges the gap between a once highly literate community now living extremely poor and undermined, and our modern era of over-information. In my vision, it is the answer to include minorities who are otherwise diminished by not being able to access the physical or digital world of information around them.

Intrigued? Larios publishes a gorgeous hand-bound book explaining the language and its components (it can be ordered here); to see more of her work visit her website. June 2011′s DESIGN> magazine also contains a fascinating essay by Larios about the project and the philosophy behind it.