The Prism of Language

I completed “The Prism of Language” for my Major Project.

I started with the word language and then tried pairing and colliding different words in order to find different possibilities for where to take my project. I have a keen interest in the English language and psychology, particularly our behaviours and thought processes. I am interested in how we communicate and the features of our language.

I thought that it would be interesting to bring to light some features of our language that most speakers are unaware of in order to teach them something new and to consider something that makes up such a large portion of our lives.

I wanted to experiment with ideas typographically, and explore the medium of print, finding different outputs for the solution. After I graduate, I would like to work in publishing and book design, so I felt that exploring this area of design would be important for preparing myself for my future career.


The theory known as Whorfianism or Linguistic Relativity was hypothesised by linguists: Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf in 1929.

There are two sides to this theory which view language in different ways. The weaker version is the one commonly accepted by linguists today.

Strong version: the theory that the semantic structure of a certain language shapes or limits the speakers conception of the world. In this version of the theory, language was compared to a prison.

Weak version: language influences a speakers view of the world but does not inescapably determine it.

This theory questioned whether:

…the languages we speak may shape the ways we think.


We use metaphor because issues like crime or the economy are hard to think about. They are complex systems that we’re talking about. None of us has a complete understanding of the systems, so we draw on knowledge of what’s familiar to us.

(Moxley, 2014)


Live or dead metaphor-01.png

Primary Research

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“Culture could be shaped by the prism of language.”

Reflection: the throwing back by a body or surface of light, heat, or sound without absorbing it.

Refraction: the change of direction of a ray of light, sound, heat, or the like, in passing obliquely from one medium into another in which its wave velocity is different.

Dispersion: the variation of the index of refraction of a transparent substance, as glass, with the wavelength of light, with the index of refraction increasing as the wavelength decreases.

Our language is something that can be split apart, interpreted in different ways by individual speakers with varying experiences.

Aspects of our language shift as meanings and contexts change compared to the way that light changes direction as it refracts. Metaphors go through a process of change as they shift from live to dead over time from their common use within our language.

Metaphors reflect the characteristics of another thing to show their similarity and  help to clarify and visualise meaning.

Artist Inspiration

Daniele Buetti

Daniele Buetti is a contemporary Swiss artist who designs with multi-media with a mixture of light installations, performance, photography, and sculpture with the aim of communicating and conveying the fragility of popular culture.

I had studied Daniele Buetti’s work during A-level Graphic Design and remembered a technique that he had used in a few pieces of his work. My intention was to use the technique as a way to highlight the pathways of light as I wanted to experiment further and look at how a link could be tested between light and language.

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I sketched out some ideas for how different behaviours of light could inspire the layout of type. I found a link between metaphor and light as they both reflect and can shift. I wanted to explore the pathways created by light rays.

I experimented with the rotation of type. This aimed to show changes that happen gradually over time for our metaphors. The original meaning of a metaphor shifts bit by bit until it is no longer noticeable.

I then aimed to expand out my ideas for representing metaphors as beams of light sketching out some layouts using different directions and paths of light. I explored how light could enter the book through the use of holes punched into the pages.

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Typeface choice: Azo Sans

I chose Azo Sans as the typeface to use because it has humanist, geometric sans serif characteristics which I felt would match well with the geometric, mathematical and scientific concept being explored through the theme of light. I believed that using this typeface would be more contemporary and modern in comparison to a serif font and this was important because the content being explored and studied is current and recent material.

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The Grid

I used a 7 column grid for flexibility and a 4mm gutter which was 4 times the size of the column width so provided a proportional ratio.

Top margin: 15mm

Bottom margin: 15mm

Left margin: 20mm

Right margin: 20mm

I wanted to create a symmetrical layout so I set the margins to be identical on each page. I wanted to add more space on the left and right margin in order to create a more expansive feel and to allow enough space to do Japanese stab stitch binding.

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Paper stock

I felt that the warm yellow was the best option because it is associated with sunlight, happiness, warmth and stimulation and looked the best fit. I decided on a slightly cream paper for the main body pages. I felt that the yellow tones in this paper would match well with the yellow and black to create a cohesive look.

I purchased my final main body paper from Direct Paper Mill, called Natural Cumbria, in 135gsm. This paper was slightly transparent which I felt was appropriate as the concept is based around light.

I also purchased Black Card, 240gsm for the cover to create a clear contrast between the inside pages and cover. Black and white also creates associations of light and dark.

The half page inserts for the chapter pages use Canford Card, Buttercup in 220gsm to bring a more dynamic look to the book and to create clear distinction between each of the chapters for easier navigation.

Final Outcome

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A pack containing a book, 4 concertina poster booklets and a couple of explanation sheets. The pack explores the power and presence of metaphors within our everyday language and speeches which have great power in shaping our thoughts and actions. It aims to highlight the control that word choice can have on our lives and features of our own language as shifting and reflecting our thoughts and perception of the world.

Metaphors change from live to dead as they become engrained within our language and through time we start to become oblivious to metaphors and do not recognise them as metaphors at all but common phrases that lose their original meaning.

The pack uses the behaviours of light in the way that it reflects, refracts and disperses. Holes are punched into the pages to allow light to pass through to create shadows and create the pathways of light. The type is arranged in single lines as pathways of light as it is placed in different directions to depict a shift in how a metaphor is thought about and noticed in our language.

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Explanation sheets

In order to communicate the concept to the user in a clear and cohesive way, I decided to design some individual A5 sheets to come with the pack. On one card is a reference to the prism which is being used to represent the splitting of light and language travelling along different paths. The holes have been cut into the pages to link in with the styling of the rest of the pack. This also creates a link between the imagery on the front and the back.

These sheets were printed onto A5 paper as I wanted to create a clear and proportional hierarchy between the elements of the pack by using A4, B5 and A5.

Cover shadow 3Binding 2Introduction chapter 4Dead metaphor page 2Refraction page 3Holes close upGloosary 5

Metaphor Book

For each chapter, there is a different angle of dotted line that moves clock wards as the user progresses through the book. On the chapter page, the positioning is reinforced by placing the numbers on the dots closest to the edges of the book to show the start of each line for each chapter.

The lines of text are rotated to create either a reflection of the type, or refraction where the angle of the type is shifted to create a visualisation of language change. The paths are reinforced by the use of dots to show the start and end of the light path.

Poster collection 2Poster 3Poster shadow 2Poster 5

Concertina booklet

Within the pack, there are a series of four fold out concertina booklets that analyse metaphors in four different contemporary speeches. The booklet uses the folds as the points of reflection and refraction to show the change that has happened to the metaphor over time.

Different sized holes are used to allow more or less light in depending on how noticeable the metaphor is to speakers. When the booklet is opened, a shadow is created on the inside of the booklet, creating a temporary impression of the metaphor as they can be ephemeral as they continually go through a process of change.


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