Minding the Gap

German typographers address scores of new communication needs with an icon set for the Vialog typeface.

An iPod, a turntable, an e-commerce Web site, and a bungee jumper—these are but a few of the inhabitants of Hel-mut Ness’s universe of icons for Vialog, the type family he developed in collaboration with Werner Schneider, a renowned typographer and Ness’s professor at the School of Applied Sciences in Wiesbaden, Germany. As aesthetic as it is functional, Vialog is the outcome of Schneider’s research on legibility and split-second comprehension. Accompanying the text faces are ten sets of icons divided into five categories—direction, communication, travel, community, and conduct—that embrace the world of nonverbal communication as readily as the professor’s letterforms do.

With wayfinding iconography, the common denominators are messages like No Smoking, Restrooms This Way, or Exit Here; but when the Munich department of transportation chose Vialog for its subway signage, they expressed a need for supplemental symbols. “For the system to be useful, the symbols needed to reflect changing times and trends as well as features of daily life,” says Otmar Hoefer, director of marketing at Linotype, the foundry that licenses Vialog. In response to their request, Ness and his team at German design studio and consultancy Fuenfwerken devised a broad range of icons that together form a detailed snapshot of contemporary life, with an uncanny focus on extreme sports. “We designed more than one thousand symbols, not only for information design but for all types of communication,” Ness says. As for the BMX biker and the bungee jumper icons, he says, “These are the sport disciplines our design team goes in for.”

When the collection landed on our desks, we were taken aback by the breadth and imagination displayed by Ness and his team. The icons’ implicit character and clarity suggest scores of real-world communication needs—and a couple of slightly absurd ones too. We present a selection of our favorites here.

And we invite you, the reader, to translate the message that the icon on the left is conveying.
Send your idea to [email protected] by February 28, 2006. We will present a selection of submissions on www.metropolismag.com.

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