Above are two very different images. On the left is an orange-red velvet dress embroidered with silver, from Unicorn. On the right, a detail from Sphere's cover illustration for The Saliva Tree, a science-fiction short-story collection by Brian Aldiss. The title story was rated by one reviewer as truly horrifying: an evaluation reflected in the illustration. Now, the saliva tree and the silver sprays both have "bits sticking out". But you would not want to wear the saliva tree on a dress, even were I to erase the mouth. What makes the two so different?
This question is related to the topic of my post "Assertive, Rigid, Rude, Sad, Unattractive, and Coarse: I Chose My Font Well for Mrs May’s Speech" about the personalities that people associate with typefaces. We associate personalities with decoration too, and I suspect this is for much the same reasons. What are they?
Part of the answer is denotation: what the picture actually represents. In the case of the saliva tree, this is a HIDEOUS THING WITH FANGS, drooling. But there's also connotation. The site OxfordDictionaries.com explains the difference thus:
Although both words broadly mean "to signify" they are technically quite different. "Denote" refers to the literal primary meaning of something, whereas "connote" signifies the attributes of a word aside from its primary meaning.
I've was prompted to consider this topic when seeking a font in which to render part of Theresa May's "Citizen of Nowhere" speech, but it's something I'd intended to discuss anyway. How might we build a Style Reader: that is, a program that can analyse decorations and predict their personalities? I shall give some thoughts on this in future posts. For the moment, here are some more images.