Graphic language for touch


This work explores the visual link between information and physical things, specifically around the emerging use of the mobile phone to interact with RFID or NFC. It was a presentation and poster at Design Engaged, Berlin on the 11th November 2005.

Download the icons (PDF, 721KB, Gif preview).

As mobile phones are increasingly able to read and write to RFID tags embedded in the physical world, I am wondering how we will appropriate this for personal and social uses.

I’m interested in the visual link between information and physical things. How do we represent an object that has digital function, information or history beyond it’s physical form? What are the visual clues for this interaction? We shouldn’t rely on a kind of mystery meat navigation (the scourge of the web-design world) where we have to touch everything to find out it’s meaning.

This work doesn’t attempt to be a definitive system for marking physical things, it is an exploratory process to find out how digital/physical interactions might work. It uncovers interesting directions while the technology is still largely out of the hands of everyday users.

h3. Reference to existing work

Visual references

p(caption). Click for larger version.

The inspiration for this is in the marking of public space and existing iconography for interactions with objects: push buttons on pedestrian crossings, contactless cards, signage and instructional diagrams.

This draws heavily on the substantial body of images of visual marking in public space. One of the key findings of this research was that visibility and placement of stickers in public space is an essential part of their use. Current research in ubicomp and ‘locative media’ is not addressing these visibility issues.

There is also a growing collection of existing iconography in contactless payment systems, with a number of interesting graphic treatments in a technology-led, vernacular form. In Japan there are also instances of touch-based interactions being represented by characters, colours and iconography that are abstracted from the action itself.

I have also had great discussions with Ulla-Maaria Mutanen and Jyri Engestr?m who have been doing interesting work with thinglinks and the intricate weaving of RFID into craft products.

h3. Development


Sketching and development revealed five initial directions: circles, wireless, card-based, mobile-based and arrows (see the poster for more details). The icons range from being generic (abstracted circles or arrows to indicate function) to specific (mobile phones or cards touching tags).

Arrows might be suitable for specific functions or actions in combinations with other illustrative material. Icons with mobile phones or cards might be helpful in situations where basic usability for a wide range of users is required. Although the ‘wireless’ icons are often found in current card readers, they do not successfully indicate the touch-based interactions inherent in the technology, and may be confused with WiFi or Bluetooth. The circular icons work at the highest level, and might be most suitable for generic labelling.


For further investigation I have selected a simple circle, surrounded by an ‘aura’ described by a dashed line. I think this successfully communicates the near field nature of the technology, while describing that the physical object contains something beyond its physical form.


In most current NFC implementations, such as the 3220 from Nokia and many iMode phones, the RFID reader is in the bottom of the phone. This means that the area of ‘activation’ is obscured in many cases by the phone and hand. The circular iconography allows for a space to be marked as ‘active’ by the size of the circle, and we might see it used to mark areas rather than points. Usability may improve when these icons are around the same size as the phone, rather than being a specific point to touch.

h3. Work in progress

This is early days for this technology, and this is work-in-progress. There is more to be done in looking at specific applications, finding suitable uses and extending the language to cover other functions and content.

Until now I have been concerned with generic iconography for a digitally augmented object. But this should develop into a richer language, as the applications for this type of interaction become more specific, and related to the types of objects and information being used. For example it would be interesting to find a graphic treatment that could be applied to a Pokemon sticker offering power-ups as well as a bus stop offering timetable downloads.

I’m also interested in the physical placement of these icons. How large or visible should they be? Are there places that should not be ‘active’? And how will this fit with the natural, centres of gravity of the mobile phone in public and private space.

I’ll expand on these things in a few upcoming projects that explore touch-based interactions in personal spaces.

Feel free to use and modify the icons, I would be very interested to see how they can be applied and extended.



h3. Visual references

Oyster Card, Transport for London.
eNFC, Inside Contactless.
Paypass, Mastercard.
ExpressPay, American Express.
FeliCa, Sony.
MiFare, various vendors.
Suica, JR, East Japan Railway Company.
RFID Field Force Solutions, Nokia.
NFC shell for 3220, Nokia.
ERG Transit Systems payment, Dubai.
Various generic contactless vendors.
Contactless payment symbol, Mastercard.
Open Here, Paul Mijksenaar, Piet Westendorp, Thames and Hudson, 1999.
Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud, Harper, 1994


25 responses for Graphic language for touch

  1. […] omplexity.

    Graphic Language for Touch
    Posted November 21, 0 comments


    Name ( […]

  2. Chris Hand says:

    link to touch_graphic_language.pdf
    is a 404…

  3. Timo says:

    Sorted, thanks.

  4. […] ks

    Graphic language for touch This work explores the visual link bet […]

  5. […] that I’ve been getting excited about with respect to mobile services, stickering and touch. First impressions Overall the interaction between phone and RFID tag […]

  6. […] d tea stains alongside names. Initial ideas were to spraypaint or silkscreen some of the touch icons to the desk surface, and I may well do that at some point. But for qui […]

  7. […] t’s physical form? What are the visual clues for this interaction?” Link: Graphic language for touch ( T […]

  8. […] och vill veta mer? Lugn i det stormande vattenglaset, h?r finns mer k?tt f?r dina ben: Timo Arnall: Graphic language for touch PDF-fil med symboler Permal […]

  9. […] was a presentation and poster at Design Engaged, Berlin on the 11th November 2005.” view the site


  10. […] c Space talks about how design for RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) needs to define a graphic language for touch. Good software is one example of how a common GUI (Grap […]

  11. […] ine » Graphic language for touch / elastic space This entry was posted on Friday, December […]

  12. […] Download the initial concepts for my logo, or have a read of Timo?s research. […]

  13. louis says:

    this reminds me of some film work that I produced about 10 years ago

    I hope the link is of some interest.
    (please excuse what may appear to be mere self promotion – but it seems to me to be genuinely relevant) 🙂

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  15. […] I’ve been developing initial logo ideas for my final year project, and have been really inspired by Timo Arnall’s research into the ideas surrounding touch (above image). Having looked at his initial concepts I sat down with the guys from Blend34 and discussed how my logo might reflect his research and also my work into Near Field Communications. I had decided on the name LOCI a while back as it reflects architectural concepts regarding a ‘sense of place’ and the ‘art of memory’. It is a kind of mnemonic link system based on places (loci, or locations), used most often in cases where long lists of items must be remembered in order, and I felt this tied in nicely with my initial concepts to do with creating a physical folksonomy or wiki.Download the initial concepts for my logo, or have a read of Timo’s research. […]

  16. […] projects like the Graphic language for touch we have begun to find ways of representing invisible radio as a tangible design material in a […]

  17. […] image alongside this article, from Timo Arnal’s “Graphic language for touch” represents an Aura around an object. Years ago I wrote that we needed the “Ultimate […]

  18. […] such as the dashed line and the kinds of visual language that we have previously proposed for RFID allow us to quickly communicate aspects such as the spatial properties of wireless technologies […]

  19. […] such as the dashed line and the kinds of visual language that we have previously proposed for RFID allow us to quickly communicate aspects such as the spatial properties of wireless technologies […]

  20. […] our work with interface technologies such as RFID and computer vision, we’ve discovered that it takes a lot of work to make sense of the […]

  21. […] about the ways in which wireless interactions inhabited physical space, through my work on a Graphic language for touch, and also through films such as Wireless in the world. Some of my students made beautiful but […]

  22. ?NoUI?? | ?? says:

    […] ????????????RFID?????????????????????????????????????????UI??????UI???????????????????????? […]