Robert Horn and visual language

Who is Robert Horn, and what is visual language?

In his most recent book, Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century, Robert Horn defines visual language as the integration of words, images, and shapes into a single communication unit. The book explores this new language evolving in the world today. Visual Language, itself written in visual language, provides history, syntax, reference, and examples. It is informative and thoroughly researched. His previous book, Mapping Hypertext, established principles for structured writing, and we see its effects in many places, particularly in corporate policy and procedure manuals and text books. When done well, it results in easy access to information we need. When its principles are not used, we recognize that fact by our frustration level.

In the last several years Horn has been a visiting scholar at Stanford University leading a project on Knowledge Mapping for Public Policy. His team has been researching applications of visual language, developing tools for expressing it, and trying to derive useful tools and rules appropriate to various types of problem domain. A major project in “argument visualization” explored a philosophical debate in computer science, “Can Computers Think?”. Other projects explored big questions about nuclear missile defense and genetically modified food. He has applied his expertise to complicated community problems he terms “social messes”, creating “knowledge maps” which summarize complex issues involving many stakeholders. Horn has experience in teaching, training, communication, research, and political science.

What is important about visual language?

Whether we are aware of it or not, we are surrounded by visual language, in advertising, the internet, books, magazines, etc. It is of increasing importance in this age of globalization. Few of us are trained to use it, as senders or receivers. We can be more effective communicators if we are fluent in this language. Horn cites research that links use of visual language with better and faster learning, greater consensus, quicker decision making, and shorter meetings.

I am particularly excited about using approaches like knowledge mapping for improving communication about (and hopefully leading to better and quicker solutions for) the types of complex problems he terms “social messes”, such as those described in a paper he presented to the Packard Foundation.

Where can I learn more about Robert Horn and visual language?


Robert Horn’s personal site
Robert Horn’s Stanford site


Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century, Robert E. Horn, 1998, MacroVU, Bainbridge Island, WA.

Mapping Hypertext: The Analysis, Organization, and Display of Knowledge for the Next Generation of On-Line Text and Graphics, Robert E. Horn, 1989, Information Mapping, Waltham, MA