pictograms as a part of our languages?

thierry blancpain's picture


im very interested in pictogramms (symbols, icons), especially in their function as a substitute for typed words. i made an invitation for a party once for my brother when he moved in his new appartment. you can see it here (the top part is the front, the bottom part the back of the postcard - dont look at the typetreatment, its not too good). its simple, it was a rush job - but it shows what i mean.

how do symbols evolve, and how do we perceive symbols? how does this "convention" on what symbols are internationaly understood (like the sportsymbols once made for the olympics) change or does it even exist?

im just interested in a discussion about symbols and how they can replace written language sometimes, making things easier (navigation in a museum, driving in a car, getting an overview over a lot of different categories/subjects - the olympic sport symbols - etc. etc.

Dan Weaver's picture

Every day I deal with two symbols that if not respected could cause me major harm, one is a red hand and the other is a silhouette of a person striding. Being that our avenues have 7 lanes and five that are actively used by agressive motorists I respect these symbols for what they mean. They replaced the "Walk" "Don't Walk" word signs.

negativespace's picture

There is a book by Adrian Frutiger on symbols I have been meaning to get a copy of, if you havent checked it out, it might be of interest to you:

Signs and Symbols: Their Design and Meaning

"Universally recognized signs and symbols have always been important means of communication. But why are certain primary shapes and configurations of dot and line perceived and remembered more easily than others? In this fascinating and now-classic study, the world-renowned typographer and designer Adrian Frutiger explores the development of signs and symbols in general and writing in particular, relating basic graphic principles and components to a wide range of historical, linguistic, and practical concerns. The author embraces everything from Egyptian hieroglyphics to modern company logos in his intriguing analysis of the way humans have always tried to express thought through graphic means."

thierry blancpain's picture

i already have it (or a very similar one in german) thomas, but thanks :)

ryan's picture

Alan Zaruba curated this exhibition,
Otto Neurath: Isotype and the Development of Global Signs.

Hopefully they'll reprint the catalog sometime soon.

oldnick's picture

The old saw, "a picture is worth a thousand (or ten thousand) words" neglects a very important detail when it is applied to pictograms: the picture really needs to be unambiguous about exactly what it depicts. Otherwise, it's not even worth the single word or idea it is meant to convey.

On the other hand, some symbols gain currency through extensive use, even if their meaning is not conveyed visually. The universal "No Entry" sign, a horizontal bar in a circle, doesn't really say much on its own, but over time most folks understand what it means. And I have yet to encounter a sign that says clearly and unequivocally "Ausgang/Ausfahrt, exit, salida, sortie,uitgang, uscita or way out (my favorite)."

Norbert Florendo's picture

As you must already know the contribution of Otl Aicher to internationally recognized symbols and pictograms.

Some background and additional reference information can be found at http://www.biza-project.de/otl/start.htm.

Much of Aicher's images plus additonal pictograms can be found at ERCO-Leuchten.

Other areas you should explore in terms of use of symbol, icon imagery and language systems (including GUI development) you can do a GOOGLE search on:
Advanced semiotic
GUI icon development (discussions of icon creation for computer interface)

Good book on GUI by William Horton
Icon Book: Visual Symbols for Computer Systems and Documentation.

I think designers often forget that more new symbols and icons are being developed for GUI than for architectural information signage.

Yes, I'm old, but I'm back in style!

TBiddy's picture

Hmmm, this is an interestering topic and one that I recently dabbled a bit in when I was working on my Thesis project for the Master's Communication Design program at Pratt here in N.Y. My thesis project was redesigning the New York City subway wayfinding system.

While I went as far as creating a new typeface, and redesigning (and rewording) the signage, I also wanted to experiment in creating a custom pictogram system similar to those used in Olympic systems. Given the scope, I bit off more than I could chew. While I have completed my Master's degree, it is definitely a project that I continue to work on on my own time.

Nick brings up some good points as one of the tasks that I found difficult to achieve was figuring out a pictogram for the term "exit". A word that shows its ugly head in multiple languages in every wayfinding system. Why can't we figure out an image to express that concept?

Norbert Florendo's picture


Here are a few treatments of "exit" albeit for emergency exit, IN vs. OUT, and fire exit.

Yes, I'm old, but I'm back in style!

oldnick's picture


I agree that the examples, minus the directional arrows, clearly point the way out in case of fire. When I noted the lack of clearly-understandable exit pictograms, I had in mind something that suggested a more orderly egress. And the British "Way Out" is still my favorite exit sign.

TBiddy's picture

I agree Nick... "Way Out" is indeed awesome. I also agree with you on the no exit pictogram (I edited the earlier post as I cited William). Norbert, the signs you show are also regionally sepcific. For example, in the US, no fire exits are ever shown in green. Here only red is used.

oldnick's picture

Sometimes words also fail in describing exits properly. I remember reading somewhere that Phineas Taylor Barnum once put signs inside his sideshow tents which read "To the Egress." Proving the old man's dictum that there's a sucker born every minute, more than one minuteman followed the signs and found himself...outside the tent (no ren-entry without a ticket). And, it took me a moment to consider and appreciate other possible interpretations when I first saw a "Way Out" sign in the London Underground: my first thought was that it pointed the way to an exhibit of hippie memorabilia...

TBiddy's picture

I fooled around with different words for my Thesis project. I tried "Leave" which looked good on a sign, but sounded a bit too forceful. :) That actually mighta worked for New York...

Norbert Florendo's picture

More unsuccessful attempts at clear symbol for EXIT:

From AIGA site (scroll down)

From Design of Signage System

From D&H Consulting (Hungary?)

Exit 245 -- The Male A Cappella Group

A strange symbol for Ladies Toilet

Yes, I'm old, but I exit in style!

TBiddy's picture

Yeah, so the male acappella group has the best one. :)

thierry blancpain's picture

very interesting, thanks. i think the same problems as with exit apply to "entry". in comparsion with "food", "toilet", etc; its a quite abstract idea you have to convey in a symbol.

the most interesting part (for me) in symbols lie in their use as navigation systems in 3d-space (museums, big parties, etc.). i especially like the party-one. maybe i get the opportunity to design such a way-finding-system for a pretty big party friends are organising (~4000 people). that would be nice :)

Norbert Florendo's picture

I have quickly assembled some new symbols for your amusement.

If you can think of more, please share!

Yes, I'm old, symbolically!

TBiddy's picture

The "no fly zone" is especially clever. :)

timd's picture

The exit pictogram shown by Norbert is the European standard not the British which has slightly more of the stepping out into the sunshine feel about it (or grey miserable day like today). It reminds me of that iconic John Wayne image (I think it was the Searchers) of him stepping off the porch, perhaps a non-running figure or just an open door could be cajoled into an exit symbol. http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg184.htm shows a comparison also shows the some of the reasoning behind the colour. I always wonder what the AIGA designers wanted from a shop mmm… a pipe, a book and a present.

thierry blancpain's picture

i always thought that this looked like an ape or a yeti or something.. strange.

thierry blancpain's picture

just another nice symbol:
attention: birds

Jem's picture

That bird icon is hilarious.

Norbert Florendo's picture

Unfortunately this is a sign of the times.

Yes, I'm old, but I'm back in style!

dezcom's picture

"That bird icon is hilarious."

I thought it was a Htchcock movie promo :-)


amyp's picture


If you haven't already read this one, Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller have a good chapter on pictograms and semiotics in their quintessential Design Writing Research.

i like your invitation.

degregorio's picture

If you can read spanish, Letritas prepare for you an unusual article of pictograms.


agisaak's picture

Somewhat off topic, but one of the best signs I encountered was a bilingual sign in Wales. The English section said 'Warning. Sheep crossing for next five miles. Drive with caution.'. The Welsh section said simply 'Defaid'.


riccard0's picture

Well, since we're reviving a thread from 2005, I'll add these:

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