WALL•E and communicating the 'directive'

I went to see WALL•E last week. It's a nice, enjoyable film from Pixar, easily as good as Toy Story, with some stunning animation and cutesy moments (some of which are Apple in-jokes).

If you haven't seen the film, then I hope I'm not giving it away too much by saying that the central plot is that humans have wrecked the Earth with too much rubbish, and have migrated instead to a spaceship, where the inhabitants can no longer remember planet life. WALL•E is a waste management robot left behind, and he meets EVE, a robot dispatched from the spaceship with a 'directive' to look for plant life.

As has been widely reported, the first 20 minutes or so are pretty much dialogue-free, as the robots don't speak much English. More interestingly though, from my perspective, is the way in which the humans of the past, who designed the spaceship, EVE and the 'directive' program, chose to communicate with the humans of the future. They leave a short video message behind, but the main instructions are communicated without words.

When EVE is given a small plant sapling by WALL•E, she places it into a cavity in her chest, and goes into an Apple Macbook style 'sleep' mode, with a green plant icon pulsing as a kind of heartbeat. This instantly communicates that she's hibernating, protecting the plant. I've attempted to re-created the plant pictogram below:

Not only this, but when the captain of the spaceship, Captain B. McCrea, is shown the plant, he discovers a manual written by the humans of the past, showing him what to do with the plant, and how to repopulate the planet. And guess what, this manual doesn't contain any words either, just diagrams and cartoon-style instructions. Perhaps Pixar did this to be easier to work on screen, but perhaps they had it right: humans wanting to teach future humans or thing or two really do need to abandon language and rely upon a visual style of communication. After all, the instructions for Lego sets and IKEA furniture both adopt this style. Perhaps it has other applications elsewhere too.