Category: Pictograms

The pictograms are falling


It’s snowing here, but I only see pictograms. Natural geometry with beautiful irregularity. The six-fold symmetry is due to the hexagonal structure of the molecules in ice crystals. Photographed by Alexey Kljatov. See his technique, and more examples, here:

Snow crystal is the precise term for what we call a snowflake, which is a more general term that also describes clumps of snow crystals.

A classification of snowflakes by Israel Perkins Warren (c.1863).

Symbol art


In my office, I have a beautiful soccer ball, designed by Ryan McGinness. And no one is kicking this “Bucky Ball” down the VisCom corridor.
I will never even take it out of the box. Ryan uses pictograms creatively in his artworks and installations:

Sign Trees (2015), a set of reflective signs shown at the Silas Marder Gallery in Bridgehampton, New York.

Wayfinding (2017), an art installation at a Detroit skate park.

Hand-crafted symbols have a lot of appeal, as you can see in the examples below.

Balloons Masayoshi Matsumoto’s animals.

Insects by Raku Inoue.

These hatchets are hand-painted by Peter Buchanan-Smith.

Breakfasts Instagram users submitted their favorites, and Reina Saur made 100 of them out of paper. One each day, until the project was completed. A selection of them are shown below.

The Accessible Icon Project


Sara Hendren and Brian Glenney started altering the icon that marks wheelchair-accessible parking spots in 2009. They put stickers on signs around Boston to make the standard symbol look more active. The International Symbol of Access was designed in the 1968 by Susanne Koefoed, in a competition organized by the United Nations. It’s promoted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

The Accessible Icon Project grew from these initial attempts to promote change. A team of interested people worked with a designer, Tim Ferguson Sauder, to finalize a new icon. The cutouts in the wheel make it easy to stencil and emphasize movement. The other improvements speak for themselves. When the design was finalized, it was put into the public domain.

Events around Boston, in cooperation with Triangle Inc’s community service organization, gave the new icon more visibility. And now it’s really taking off.

It’s on my phone.

MoMA has added it to their permanent collection.There’s a modified version on wheelchair-accessible New York taxis.

This pictogram is one part of a movement to encourage a more positive perception of people with disabilities.
Truly, it represents “Infographics for the People.”



The biohazard symbol was designed in 1966, by Charles Baldwin, an engineer at the Dow Chemical Company.

Below, a set of hazard warning pictograms.

GHS The Globally Harmonized System is a universal set of symbols from the United Nations.

Nuclear waste
How do we warn people of buried toxic waste without words? And stop them from digging it up. We don’t know if mankind, thousands of years in the future, will understand any radiation hazard symbols, or a written warning (in any current language). This clever visual solution, by Nick Shelton, was for a School of Visual Arts infographics project.

A detail.

Mosquito sign
 Maleria is a huge problem in some countries.

Flight ban
The items that you should not take to the airport. (From an American Airlines check-in page.)

Designed at the University of California in 1946. It symbolizes activity radiating out from an atom.

We know to proceed with caution if we see this.

Symbol world


Emoji weather map One way to get the forecast. And it’s global.,39.000,-95.000,4
Below: What’s going on here?

Legoland Staying on the toilet theme, some signs with Lego humor.

Dog warning Says it quite clearly.

Don’t do it A lot of things are banned at this California beach.

Keep off the street Ouch!

Your friendly doctor Yes, it’s clever, but it scares me.

Aliens An unusual style in this Japanese pedestrian sign.

Breakfast surprise A special skillet is all you need.

On the road


Almost everywhere we look there are (supposedly helpful) signs, but they often send an unclear message. This area of visual communication has plenty of room for improvement. In the example below, the sign is clearly in Penns Grove.

Some stop confusion.

Very precise speed restriction.

A bike collision could be imminent.

The British are very good at keeping secrets.

Almost Apple‘s Command symbol.

Sometimes there’s a barrage of information…

…or just too many arrows.

Two-way, indeed.

Not an encouraging sign, if you’re prone to car sickness.

I saw this one a lot when I lived in Queens.

The Guardian had a road sign quiz, and these were some of the options.
Below: Turn left for the 1980s. (The real meaning is Direction to nearest emergency phone.)

You’ve reached Egypt. (Detour.)

Bus mounting ramp ahead. (Buses, bikes and taxis only.)

Please use 3D glasses. (No overtaking.)

Fired caterpillars ahead. (Electrical overhead cable ahead.)

By the numbers A small town in California.

And finally… This sign is (helpfully) in both English and Welsh. Unfortunately, the Welsh section says, “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.”

Icon invasion


Today is World Emoji Day. Why? Because that’s the date shown on Apple’s iCal emoji. The day (in 2002) that the calendar application was announced. Here’s the calendar emojis from Apple, Google and Twitter, which uses the date that it was founded.

Since they first appeared on Japanese phones in the late 1990s, emojis have risen to clearly become (numerically-speaking) number one in the world of visual communication. Billions are used every day. “Emoji” means “pictogram” in Japanese. Surprisingly, the connection to the English words “emotion”and “emoticon” is coincidental. There are 1,144 separate emoji components in Unicode 10, and many other emojis are composed by putting two or more together.

If you want to improve your emoji knowledge, Emojipedia is the place:

It’s all happening in the world of cute little icons. There’s an emoji movie coming out next week.

(The Emoji Movie © Sony Pictures Entertainment)

The most popular emoji is “Tears of Joy.” Below are the Apple and Samsung versions.

We can already search with emojis, and now the big brands are ramping up their emoji-friendliness. These are for Coca-Cola and IKEA.

As the travel website, KAYAK stated: “Spelling things is so 2015.” The site can already be searched using these ten emojis to represent cities, and they’ve just had a competition to choose 15 more.

Truth Facts give their take on the way that things are going.

Nigel Holmes wrote an excellent post about emojis (and other developments in visual language) earlier this year:

Emergency symbols


Guemil is a pictogram initiative, developed by Rodrigo Ramírez, that is oriented towards risk and emergency situations. The aim is to create a set of icons that can be understood all over the world in a crisis context. Website:

The pictograms are packed into an open source font, which along with other information, can be downloaded directly from the site, or from GitHub:

International user testing is a very important part of the development, in order to measure performance with regard to meaning and cultural differences, You can evaluate the pictograms, and contribute to the process here::

A pdf about Guemil:

This project is part of the Design Network for Emergency Management (, and the tests are a collaboration with the International Institute for Information Design. Guemil was shortlisted in the 2017 IIID Awards, in the Emergency category (

The name: In the Mapuche* language, guemil is a symbol (originally “ngümin” which means “design” or “borders”) that represents science and knowledge, as well as manufacturing and the art of transformation. It is also a symbol of the writing system.
* Indigenous inhabitants of south-central Chile and south-western Argentina.

Below, a guemil pattern.

Rodrigo Ramírez is a faculty member in the School of Design at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and Visiting Professor in the School of Design, at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He is also a partner in Frescotype, a digital type studio based in Santiago.

Faces everywhere


If you start looking around for faces in commonplace items, you’ll soon find them. I think of them as unintentional pictograms.
These images are from a Twitter feed: #facesinthings.


Emojis and beyond


This is the third and final post in a series about the search for a pictorial language, by Nigel Holmes.

When considering a visual language, it’s worth looking at artists’ efforts to communicate without any words, and there’s an illustrious history of wordless books. The graphic novels that Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward made in the early 20th century are great examples. They are stories that are told through a series of black and white woodcuts, one to a page, without a single explanatory word or caption. As you turn the pages you follow the story, as you might if you flipped through a series of still pictures from a movie. You add your own interpretations and feelings, and your imagination fills in the story from picture to picture.

In 2013, Xu Bing published “Book from the Ground: from point to point”. Unlike Masereel’s and Wards’s books, “Book from the Ground” is comprised of thousands of existing symbols, icons, tiny pictures, emojis, trademarks, roadsigns, numbers and punctuation (including question and exclamation marks) arranged in rows like text, to be read from left to right. And you can “read” it. It’s a little difficult…but nevertheless it is a pleasure to slow down and take the time to work out the meaning. I can read about two pages at one sitting. It makes you think about what pictograms really mean; and how the meaning can change depending on the context.

Has Bing invented a new language? Not quite. The story is 24 hours in his life. You know that because there’s a little text on the back cover, the only regular words in the book. The more you read the book, the easier it is to understand how Bing is telling the story; what his “writing” style is. The tiny pictures don’t exactly make sentences, they represent a sequence of actions and thoughts.

One thing is clear in the book: all the pictures look like the things being described. And that must be the rule for a truly visual language.  If the inventors of such languages have to resort to abstract symbols and other marks to modify their pictures, then readers have to know what those marks mean. They have to learn another language, before they can see meaning in the string of pictures. Bing does use brackets enclosing a group of symbols to indicate thoughts about, or explanations of, the preceding “text.” Other forms of punctuation are used, but the images—the “words”—are all recognizable. He brushes his teeth, you see brush and toothpaste. Fedex delivers a package, you see the Fedex logo, and a box.

The forerunners of emojis were emoticons (emotional icons)—punctuation marks and other typographic characters arranged to make keystrokable pictures of faces. They first appeared in Puck Magazine, in 1881.

Modern emoticons were invented by Scott Fahlman in 1982. According to Pagan Kennedy (writing in the New York Times Magazine) Fahlman’s smiley face 🙂 was intended “to take the sting out of mocking statements” and other differences of opinion on online forums. He called his invention a joke marker. There’s a collection of 650 emoticons in David Sanderson’s Smileys.

To see the icons above, you tilt your head sideways. In 1993, Tota Enomota published “Niko! The Smiley Collection”, with 200 non-head-tilting emoticons. Compared to western keyboards there are many more characters on Japanese computers. Some of Enomota’s examples are quite subtle.

But somehow, five or six, or even just three :-), keystrokes proved to be too much for people who wanted to add a tiny picture to their email messages. Enter emojis (a literal translation from the Japanese is “picture letter”). In 1999, in Japan, Shigetaka Kurita created 176 12-pixel by 12-pixel characters. They were recently added to the Museum of Modern Art collection.

In 2010, emojis were added to the International Unicode Standard, a non-profit group of programmers who wanted to standardize the coding of fonts so that computers and phones all talked to each other in the same way. There are now roughly 1,850 emoji characters on the Unicode list. It’s a big number because many of the human faces are available in a range of different skin tones.  You can look them up on

Both Scott Fahlman and Shigetaka Kurita think “current emoji standards are ugly compared to their ancestors.” (From “Emojis, the secret behind the smile”, by Marty Allen, 2015.) I agree. Wouldn’t it be great if they were simple, flat, iconic pictograms? Why does everything have to be so fully rendered?

Funnily enough, one of the things that you can do with emojis is surprisingly similar to a principle that Otto Neurath used in Isotype, and Charles Bliss, too: joining two icons to make a third. Emoji ZWJ Sequence (Zero Width Joiner) is way of combining more than one emoji (digitally, on the keyboard) so that it displays as a single emoji.

This approach offers possibilities for a more nuanced language. A string of single emojis doesn’t constitute language at all; it’s just a way of adding fun to a message, and shortening it.

Fred Benenson has “translated” Moby Dick into emojis. “Emoji Dick” reprints all of Herman Melville’s words with the “translations” above each sentence. Benenson is a data engineer at the fund raising site Kickstarter, and he used Kickstarter to raise money to pay the 800+ Amazon Mechanical Turk workers to translate the novel’s approximately 10,000 sentences. The book is $200 for the color version ($40 for black and white), but you can download a free pdf of the whole thing (750 pages!) here:

Unlike the Bing book, I have not cracked the code of how the emojis actually do translate the Melville’s text. Here’s the famous first line (“Call me Ishmael”).

I see a phone, and a whale…but it’s so cryptic, that I wonder if the whole thing is a joke. (An expensive joke.)

So unless it is a kind of joke, (and even if it isn’t!) Emoji Dick is not a wonderful advert for translating literature into emojis.

Here’s my point: strings of emojis, or emoticons of any type are not new pictorial languages. They are, at best, messages. Messages that the mind completes. “You get the message” or “Know what I’m saying” mean that the message is not all spelled out. Perhaps that’s enough for most people. Emojis are fun, but they are faddish—currently used by the pretty young (6-9 year-olds?), and the pretty old (60-plus, who may think they are being computer literate). Or perhaps we oldsters are just messaging with our emoji-addled young grandchildren. They certainly have more patience than I do going through all the tiny choices!

But if there is any way a universal visual language can be created, it’s probably via computing. Today, two thirds of people in the world have a smartphone. By 2019, that’ll be five billion people; this is how we communicate (sadly). If we can type, or say, “thank you” in Google Translate when writing to a friend in Germany, and get “danke” back in an instant, perhaps the newly updated and improved AI version of Translate will be able to “translate” regular written or spoken language into a new, as yet undrawn, set of (hopefully) flat and iconic pictograms.

Of course, since the point is to communicate, why not ask Google Translate to put your message into the receiver’s native language? Who needs pictures now? (And, if you have emojis on your phone now, they will pop up as stand-ins for some words).

I think designers will keep trying. We will look back to “Safo” (“mind writing”), a language developed from Chinese Hanzi by Andreas Eckhardt (1884–1974), who in turn looked at Gottfried Liebnitz’s work on universal scientific notation in the late 1600s, and “Solresol”, a language developed by Francois Sudre (1787–1862), which was based on the notes of an octave. It could be sung, spoken, or played on a musical instrument.

Language changes all the time. One day we’ll make a pictorial one that works. Everyone says we are in the age of visuals. With Otto Neurath alongside us, let’s get going, (and let’s have fun doing it).

Worth a look:
“Book from the Ground: from point to point”, by Xu Bing. 2013.
“Niko! The Smiley Collection”, by Tota Enomoto. 1993
“Emojis: The Secret Behind the Smile”, by Marty Allen2015

Thank you for reading! (Art by the great Gerd Arntz.)