For those of you who are as obsessed with WNYC’s Radiolab as I am, you may have already heard the latest installment of the show on the topic of Bliss—oh-so-appropriately released a week before the holidays, a time when we were all probably feeling faaaaaaaaaaar from that. If you haven’t heard it yet, it’s worth a listen for various reasons. Design-speaking, one of the segments in the episode inspired me to dig a little deeper into the work of Charles K. Bliss, an Austrian-born engineer and semiotician, who in the late ’40s invented what’s now referred to as the Blissymbolic Communication System.
Born out of his interest in communication and the belief that most human conflict—both universal and personal—is caused by the shortcomings of language, Bliss created what he believed to be the “perfect language” that could “communicate the truth without the trickery of words.” Blissymbolics is purely visual. It cannot be spoken, and because of that, it is usable and understood by speakers of any language in the world.
About twenty years after its creation, Blissymbolics was discovered by a teacher in Canada who began using it to help children with disabilities learn how to communicate. When physical obstacles get in the way of speaking, hearing or processing and memorizing thousands and thousands of words, the simplicity of the Bliss pictorial system offers a much more natural and intuitive means of expression. And with great success: Blissymbolics is still used as an educational tool all over the world.
Trained as a chemical engineer, Bliss developed his system as a library of simple graphic symbols representing the most basic ideas which could then be combined in linear sequences to express more elaborate concepts, “much as atoms could be combined to create complex molecules.”
Even though his hopes for the language he invented far exceeded how it came to be recognized and used in the course of his lifetime, there is still something to be said for how impactful and incredibly helpful it has been to people all over the world. Teachable moment: be open to ideas and inventions morphing midstream. Something pretty amazing may still come out of the whole thing.