Pictograms, icons and other visual aids

Pictograms, icons and other visual aids

Many years ago, while on his travels, my grandfather met a group of weavers in a remote part of Asia. He was fascinated by the number of patterns they wove, and asked one of the weavers how many patterns he knew. The weaver replied that he had no idea – he simply plucked them ‘from his stomach’.

Published 5/25/2015

Symbols speak louder than words

We often assume that other people see the world in the same way that we do, and the same is true when we try to illustrate something. Pictograms and icons are images that work as symbols – they should be intuitive and say more than words – making it even more important that we don’t just think from our own point of view. Generally speaking, pictograms and icons are not intended to be adapted or ‘translated’. For example, a heart as a symbol of something you like or love is so widely recognised that it works in many cultures without being translated.

Drive, run or execute a script?

If you can find pictograms that are truly universal, they can be invaluable aids for information transfer and translation. But without careful thought, it’s easy to get things wrong. I was once looking for a button to run a script in a computer environment. In Swedish, the word we use for ‘run’ in this context is the same as the word we use to ‘drive’ a car. So I was looking for something relating to ‘driving’ or ‘scripts’, but the actual button had a symbol of a running man. The symbol meant nothing to me, but it was completely logical to the English-speaking programmer who had designed the button. In Scandinavia we ‘drive’ a script, while the French, Spanish and Italians ‘execute’ a script and the Germans ‘carry out’ a script. Today, the icon often looks something like this:

More examples

What we think of as established everyday images and associations may not actually hold true outside our own little part of the world. For example, an American mail box could be said to look rather like a British litter bin. And many of us have no doubt stood outside the toilet doors in a foreign country trying to work out which is the ladies and which is the gents. In certain situations, the design of pictograms and icons can be of crucial importance!

Of course, that’s not to say we should avoid them – they are incredibly useful when they work. The important thing is to think about which target groups need to understand the symbols. What are their cultural associations, and what do you want the reader to associate with them?

The memory as a stomach?

For the weaver my grandfather was talking to, it was quite obvious that memory could be illustrated with a stomach, and that may still be true for him. But pictograms and icons can also change over time – if we talk about computers, the internet and the digital world, memory can be found in completely different and many more places than was the case just twenty years ago!

Further reading

If you want to read more about this subject, we recommend TC World’s fascinating article ‘Localizing visual content’.

Here on our blog we have previously written about internationalisationlocalisation and globalisation, and about colours that can have different associations in different languages.