No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

June 25th, 2008

It's not the Message, It's the Medium

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

How often have you seen a t-shirt of tattoo featuring Japanese or Chinese ideograms? No doubt they were beautiful. They also may have not exactly said what they were supposed to mean. A line here or there, a seemingly incidental mark might make a big difference in the original language. LIke this, for example:

There are hundreds like this at As the site explains, in Japan English lettering often is used just as we use ideograms here–entirely for decoration. “Most of the Engrish found on is not an attempt to communicate – English is used as a design element in Japanese products and advertising to give them a modern look and feel (or just to “look cool”). There is often no attempt to try to get it right, nor do the vast majority of the Japanese population (= consumers) ever attempt to read the English design element in question.” OK, that we can understand.

But is it correct to say that Engrish is “not an attempt to communicate”? Obviously, if communication is defined as the intentional transfer of information and ideas from one person to another, the answer is no. But what is design doing if not communicating? Even the attempt to look cool is a message, and the “modern look,” like any style, involves an act of identification–I am such a person, or adopting such a role, or orienting myself toward such people, etc. We dress to identify ourselves with particular cultures and subcultures, and we then can be identified by others accordingly. Even the social references often are not exactly spot-on accurate: look at how many university sweatshirts are worn by people who never attended the school. Society works in part by articulating social types such as college student, middle class family, and hip consumer, and some of the time we are the signboards for keeping those types in circulation.

Way back in the twentieth century someone stated that “you cannot not communicate.” He should have added that this fact of life can be the source of a lot of business, and even a laugh or two.

So, have a nice day:

PS: Thanks to those who contacted us via the blog or email regarding the future of NCN. John and I will continue to post, though not at the 6 days per week pace that we have maintained for the last year, and we will be bringing in a few guest authors as well. One of the strengths of this blog is that we have discerning readers who value the public arts and engaged discussion that characterize a strong democratic society. You may not know of each other, but you are there.

2 Responses to ' It's not the Message, It's the Medium '

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  1. rob said,

    on June 26th, 2008 at 9:35 am

    I have dyslexia and so often in my routine readings I create or at least encounter neologisms. Usually I find them funny and only rarely annoying or frustrating. One of my favorites was a label I made for some homemade wine “Zandinfel”.

    Besides, I have often wanted to be produoed by an expensive qeen!

  2. rob said,

    on June 27th, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    As I look at theses photos I am reminded of many things. The beauty of medieval illuminated manuscripts, Cyrillic script, and Arabic writings. To me they are works of art in and of themselves. To these I would add the Rosetta Stone, The Stele of Hamarabi, and the Mayan hieroglyphs. That they are trying to convey a message goes with out saying but what that message is, is beyond my comprehension. The lesson of hermeneutics would suggest that the meaning is neither in the author, the script, nor the observer, but rather in the space and interaction that exists between the three.

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