Archetypes and Visual Pangrams

This follows an earlier post on Visual Pangrams here


To recap, ordinary pangrams use every letter of the alphabet at least once to form a more or less meaningful sentence, for instance: –

Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz

This English pangram includes all 26 letters of the alphabet with only 5 reuses of letters; with a used three times and with s, i and o each used twice and it therefore has a letter count of 31 (26 + 5).

There do not seem to be any adequate English pangrams that use all 26 letters exactly once; that is having a letter count of 26. [Augarde, 1984]

Pangrams  exist in most alphabetic languages. For instance, this is the shortest French one with a letter count of 29. [OuLiPo, 1981]

Whisky vert: jugez cinq fox d’aplomb

By slight extensions the concept also makes sense in some ideographic languages.

For instance the Iroha (いろは?) is a Japanese poem, that is a perfect pangram containing each character of the Japanese syllabary exactly once. It is used as an ordering method for the syllabary in much the same way as A, B, C, D, ….. is accepted as the ordering of the Latin alphabet.

One of Japan’s ‘National Living Treasures’, Serizawa Keisuke, has produced a stencil printed, fabric design that uses every character of this syllabary.


Somewhat similarly the Chinese character 永 (yǒng), meaning permanence, incorporates every basic stroke needed to define Chinese characters as described in The Eight Principles of Yǒng.


The numbers on the right indicate the order in which the strokes are to be  made.

This can be thought of as a template, stencil or series of stencils that can used to generate the other characters.

Visual Pangrams

The earlier post included this example of a visual pangram, from the front endpaper and frontispiece of A Field Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe. [Peterson, Mountford and Hollom, 1974]

Flyleaf of Collins Birds og Great Britain and Europe

The suggested formulation for a visual pangram is that the individual features of a complete field of interest correspond to the letters of the alphabet; and that the overall pictorial representation of the complete field of interest corresponds to a more or less meaningful sentence made up using all the letters of the alphabet at least once.

In the image above the complete field of interest is commonly found birds, the individual bird silhouettes correspond to the letters of the alphabet and the arrangement of the silhouettes into an overall pictorial representation corresponds to all the letters being used at least once to create a meaningful sentence.


The introduction to the Field Guide also includes a Typography of a Bird diagram, in which a more or less realistic bird is overloaded with all the named parts a bird might have, but that no single bird could possibly have.

bird_parts_1Highlighting these differentiating features with attention lines, as shown below, aids identification in the field; so that, with distribution maps and species specific notes, you do not usually need to know or learn the names of the features.


For instance within the Finch family, the Hawfinch has a large heavy beak that uniquely identifies it (marked with an attention line); the male Chaffinch similarly uniquely has a grey head whilst male Bramblings have white rumps and rusty carpels in summer and winter.


I want to argue here that whilst the frontispiece to A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe and The Typography of A Bird diagram are superficially similar, they are in fact quite different.

It is clear from the stencil like nature of the individual strokes of the Chinese character 永 that it can be seen as a generative mechanism for producing all the other characters.

Similarly in The Typography of A Bird diagram the individual named features can be seen as a generative mechanism, in which individual features can be selected and combined to create particular instances or separate species of bird.

In contradistinction the visual pangram shows representative bird types in pictorially related locations where they might be seen; on telephone wires, in trees, on fence posts or on the ground.

That is the visual pangram is relational whilst the Typography of a Bird diagram is generative; an archetype or prototype from which particular species are patterned. In this sense, an archetype is a morphological ideal that exhibits all the general characteristics of a group of organisms, here The Birds of Britain and Europe.

Both diagrams are similar in that they have lists of visual features combined into an overall image, but the arrangement of these features in the archetype is definitive, functional and generative whilst the arrangement in the visual pangram is purely pictorial and at best just indicates where certain types of bird may be found.


A perhaps more familiar example of an archetype is Goethe’s Urpflanze or Original Plant. [Goethe, 1790 trans 2009]

‘Seeing so much new and burgeoning growth, I came back to my old notion and wondered whether I might not chance upon my archetypal plant. There must be such a plant, after all. If all plants were not moulded on one pattern, how could I recognize that they are plants?’


Later the notion became more abstract as a theoretical model of plant structure with the stems acting as axes of growth, along which a generic leaf was transformed into different shaped leaves, petals, seeds etc.[Steadman 1979].


Augarde, T, (1984) The Oxford Guide to Word Games Oxford University Press

Goethe, J. W. (1790) Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erkläre Gotha: Ettinger

Goethe, J. W., trans Miller, G. L. (2009) The Metamorphosis of Plants  MIT Press

OuliPo (Association) (1981) Atlas de Littérature Potentielle Gallimard, Paris

Peterson, R., Mountford, G and Hollom, P.A.D. (1974) A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. Third Edition; Collins

Steadman, P (1979) The Evolution of Designs Cambridge University Press

About Graham Shawcross

Architect PhD student at Edinburgh University Interested in order, rhythm and pattern in Architectural Design
This entry was posted in Aesthetics, Architecture, Classification, Enumeration, Visual Pangrams and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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