Winter 1993

The Dictionary of Visual Language

Philip Thompson and Peter Davenport’s visual analysis of the graphic cliche is a design classic

Philip Thompson and Peter Davenport’s original title for The Dictionary of Visual Language was ‘The Dictionary of Graphic Clichés’, until they bowed to their publisher’s request for something that sounded more positive. In some ways this was a pity because, as Thompson argues in his introduction, the effectively redeemed cliché is, historically, the very crux of graphic communication, and it is the ‘international and trans-cultural acceptance of the visual cliché that is its greatest virtue’.


First published by Bergstrom and Boyle in 1980, the book has been out of print in Britain since the Penguin edition of 1982. It deserves immediate reissue because its analytical method is unique. ‘Graphic design is language,’ writes Thompson. ‘Like other languages it has a vocabulary, grammar, syntax, rhetoric.’ To demonstrate this thesis the authors assemble a huge array of visual examples under an alphabetical sequence of subject headings: barrel, basket, bath, bayonet, beach … feather, fence, fig leaf, figurehead, file … mousetrap, moustache, mouth, mug shot. The effect is to make the reader see familiar material drawn from four decades of graphic design from a largely unfamiliar angle: not as the portfolio masterpieces of individual designers, but as part of the broader stock of visual culture in which we all share. The dictionary also serves as a sobering reminder of how much graphic design has changed in the past decade. It is not that the visual language it explores so thoroughly has disappeared, since clichés by their nature will persist, but these devices come now with a great deal more graphic and typographic paraphernalia attached. They are less central – which is probably what older designers mean when they repeatedly bemoan the dearth of ‘ideas’.

Rick Poynor, design writer, Eye founding editor, London

First published in Eye no. 11 vol. 3 1993

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