08 March 2012

Bicycle Symbolism - Towards the Future

The Bicycle as a symbol of progress, of renewal, of promising times ahead. This is not a new concept. Indeed it has been around since the invention of the bicycle. Many bicycle posters at end of the 19th century featured promising themes like liberation, progress, freedom. Here's an example:
Vintage Bicycle Posters: Griffiths
When people in most cultures see art or photgraphy, our brain sees movement from left to right and interprets the piece based on that.

The German historian and psychologist Rudolf Arnheim who wrote, among other books, "Art and visual perception – A psychology of the creative eye" noticed that the way many cultures read - from left to right - has an influence on the way we look at art or photography.

‘Since a picture is “read” from left to right, pictorial movement toward the right is perceived as being easier, requiring less effort’.

In the vintage poster, the youthful girl in pure white is tossing flowers about her as she rides from left to right. She is heading towards the future, moving away from us. Perhaps even spreading flowers to encourage us to follow her.

The old, frail woman sitting amongst thorns has her back firmly to the future, head in her hand and almost resigned to the fact that she won't - or can't - be a part of the glowing future.

Bicycles often look better when heading off to the right. In the photo shoots we've done for bicycle brands, we are always careful to shoot the right side of the bicycle wherever possible, so that the chainguard is visible. It just looks better. 

Here are a couple of examples of 'reading' a photo.

At top left, the girl in the poncho looks like she is struggling into a snowblown headwind, which she was. At bottom left, by flipping the photo horizontally, she looks like she is sailing on a tailwind. The pedestrians, as well.

At top right, the bicycle users appear to have an easy go of it with a tailwind. Which they weren't. At bottom right they appear to be muscling into the snow and wind.

The flag at the top is the party flag for the Samajwadi political party in India. Their rising star, Akhilesh Yadav, recently won a landslide election in the Uttar Pradesh state elections. Yadav campaigned tirelessly and he rode hundreds of kilometres around the state on his bicycle and organised bicycle rides. Reuters has an article about his rise to power. He thrashed the heir-apparent in Indian politics, Rahul Ghandi of THE Ghandis by appealing to the working classes, sleeping in villagers huts and aligning himself with the demands of the regular citizens. And the man can even text and cycle at the same time. He's got our vote.

So a bicycle is a fitting symbol for the party. For any progressive party who aspire to be agents of change.
India Hero Bicycle 03 India Hero Bicycle 02
Let's hope Mr Yadav becomes a Hero for India and is 'extra durable and shining', as the decals on this Indian bicycle spotted in Copenhagen declare.

I have no idea if the designer thought about the positioning of the bicycle on the flag at the top of the article. Based on this Left to Right perception, the bicycle isn't heading away from us, carrying us to a better future and all the other metaphors you can think of.. The positioning of it - in our perception - suggests that it is going in the opposite direction. Going against the flow, or against the grain, as it were. Which can be symbolic in a positive sense for a political party wishing to embrace change and deconstruct the status quo.

This started out as an article about Mr Yadav and his party's use of the bicycle as a symbol. A discussion started here at Copenhagenize Consulting, however, about how bicycles are positioned in signage and pictograms.

If we suppose that a bicycle heading from left to right is 'positive' symbolism for our sub-conscious perception, then surely bicycle pictograms and signage should feature this directional placement.

We all went over the window to look at the Danish standard on the cycle tracks outside.

Bike Lane I Bike CPH Winter Bikes Allowed Bike Seatbelt
Oops. Right to left. Although the logo of the City of Copenhagen's Bicycle Office "I Bike CPH" features a bicycle in the 'positive' direction, as does the S-trains in Copenhagen - at least on the right side of the train. As well as this pictogram for the Bicycle Seat Belt on the train between Copenhagen and Malmö, Sweden.

Then we  had a look through our archives from around the world.

Vienna Bike Traffic Lights Red Green Wave
In Vienna the bicycle is featured right to left, although the light signal avoids any metaphorical complication by sending the bicycle right towards us. That seems positive when you 'read' that pictogram. At right is the symbol for The Green Wave in Copenhagen, with the bicycle user in metaphorical direction equality - could be heading towards us or away from us. I've always percieved this as the bicycle heading towards me, come to think of it.

Stockholm Cycle Chic16 Stockholm Cycle Chic17
Stockholm can't seem to decide.

Bordeaux Bike Box Bordeaux Bicycle Signage Bordeaux Bicycle Signage_1
The French are sending the bicycle backwards, then forwards to a progressive future and then back again.

Barcelona Bicing and Me Barcelona Bike Light Bike-friendly signage on Barcelona Train
Barcelona is right to left. Except on the train signage. Confused?

Cargo Bike Amsterdam Cycle Chic Supermum
This pictogram in Amsterdam is right to left, as is the street sign.

Sao Paolo Ciclofaixa_21 Sao Paolo Ciclofaixa_19
Sao Paulo is right to left, although on the sign stating that Volkswagon sponsored the bike lane through a park the bicycles are left to right. And yes, we love that irony.
DC Bicycle Infrastructure Montreal Cycle Chic 009 The Bicycles of Ferrara (16)
This pictogram in Washington, DC seems to send cyclists back out into traffic. In Montreal, middle, and Italy, at right, it's right to left, too.

So here's a crazy Copenhagenize idea.

Let's get all subliminal. Let's flip our bicycle pictograms on the streets and signage to send a sub-conscious message to all those who 'read' them. It's an inexpensive solution to influence perception of cycling.

Send the bicycle from left to right - not only so we can see the damned chainguard - but to broadcast the symbolism of a progressive future.


Karl McCracken (twitter: @KarlOnSea) said...

Mikael -
It is interesting - those places where people don't cycle much do seem to have the pictograms pointing right to left. I'm not saying that these cause a lack of cycling, but perhaps their placement this way round is a subtle clue as to how the planners and engineers who specify & paint them think of the bicycle as a thing of the past that really is beneath their pay grade?

Or are we just getting too Jungian about this?

Paul M said...

In some cases, might it be that people are trained to read from right to left? I don't know about the indian languages but Arabic and Hebrew both read back to front from a European pespective. In those cultures, perhaps ointing left is the positive portrayal?

kim said...

It is to do with the way in which the alphabet you use is laid out. It is a well known cultural phenomenon, so European see the future as facing to the right. Whereas those who read Hebrew or Arabic see the future as facing left. In Chinese the future is facing up wards...

Fonant said...

The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain uses this effect in their logo, which originally used a left-wards facing bicycle.

Mikael Colville-Andersen said...

although even in denmark and the netherlands it's right to left.

it should be an intl standard that the pictograms are left to right.

Mikael Colville-Andersen said...

with cultural adjustments for arabic and asian languages.

andybikes said...

Great Britain has a cycling embassy?

Frits B said...

All official Dutch bicycle signs make the bike point left, probably because we are essentially a socialist country where left is good and right is bad :-).
And Karl really thinks we don't cycle much?

Anonymous said...

Oh no, you won't get us hipsters to take photographs of our bikes from their "backside".

Left-to-right ftw!!

Alisdair said...

I've never taken notice before.

Being Australian I'm suspicious that the line guy didn't just put his stencil down incorrectly and go ahead with it anyway!

Kim said...

@ andybikes Yes it does, this is the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain

Charles said...

From Philadelphia -- According to the US Federal Highway Administration, the official practice is that non-motorized pictograms are depicted with the subject moving from the outside of the road to the inside of the road -- deer, cattle, moose, ducks, pedestrians, bikes. Of course, the imagery does not work for bikes, which are not crossing the road but are traveling along the road.

Rhode Long said...

In the UK all images of bikes on signs or road markings show the bike the "wrong" way, from right to left. This may explain all...!

Jeremy said...

I find the right-to-left orientation friendlier because this is the way I get on the bike. I also think that, as a sharrow, it's more assertive, signalling to car drivers that a bike may be moving into traffic rather than away from traffic.