In the aftermath of the recent horrendous Manchester and London terrorist attacks, I was puzzled by the imagery used to accompany a new police warning advising people to RUN, HIDE and TELL if they should find themselves in the midst of such a situation.
Seeing this for the first time on the Channel 4 news, it puzzled me as to exactly what the middle image was. In focusing on trying to decode the visual I didn’t really read the word sitting beside it. As a result, I had to stare at the paused picture for some time before I saw what it was supposed to be—someone peeping out from behind an object. Before this realisation, my mind pictured it as a distorted question mark. In this, I also became aware that because of my confusion I was unwittingly put in the position of someone who didn’t read English, making the visual communication more important.
Of course, deliberate ambiguity has a place in graphic design. In using negative space, the work of illustrator Noma Bar, or the classic of the genre, the Fed Ex arrow, are perfect examples of how duality in an image can captivate an audience and engage them intellectually. Once decoded, the viewer’s ego is massaged that they have ‘got it’. More importantly though—once seen, the previously hidden image can not be unseen, and this reinforces the message.
Now too, with the Run Hide Tell images, I cannot not see what the HIDE image is meant to be. But with that initial questioning of what I was looking at, my visual perception was confused. The fact that it took me a while to decode the image brings to question its effectiveness in a situation no one wants to find themselves in. In just such an instance, visual ambiguity is the last thing anyone needs.