The advance of pictograms in signage

The use of pictograms in signage design

The advance of icons in wayfinding and signage.


Pictograms are the visual depictions of an instruction or wayfinding reference point. The use of pictograms and visual representations to instruct and inform goes back thousands of years through human history. It is widely recognised that the first written symbols were pictorial representation of objects to help early humans communicate with one another.

Mesopotamian cuneiform, and the Egyptian hieroglyphs are amongst the earliest forms of pictograms, and these developed into languages, although they were based on local customs and traditions and weren't translatable around the world. Similarly, the Chinese alphabet of characters has developed over a long period of time, taking small elements of pictures that have been used to create language characters.

In our world today, some pictograms have become ubiquitous. For the widest possible understanding to be achieved, a pictogram must be as self-explanatory as possible. In order to convey the message, a symbol must be used that will be typical of the subject and can easily be associated with it through common experience, across language and cultures. We are used to seeing basic pictorial images of men and women to denote toilets, along with many other examples.

A sign which uses native written language potentially alienates groups of users that either don't understand the language or who have challenges with reading. A pictogram symbol is a visible representation of the language that would have been used and offers a more transferable means of communication. A pictogram symbol should consist of information that has been extracted from the environment and should be easy to recognise and understand. Pictograms are sparse in their information and should be instantly recognisable. This makes use of pictograms particularly useful in time-critical environments like hospitals.

In order to be effective, a pictogram must be quickly and clearly recognised, and understood by everyone viewing it. Therefore, not only must the content of the pictogram be a characteristic or universal symbol for the intended message – an airplane, a car, a cross-roads - but the visual form too must be simple, typical and associative enough to permit quick and clear identification of the message.

Because we have been using pictograms for so long, we have become used to not only their form but the standard images used to convey information to us. Pictograms become a useful tool when your message needs to be transmitted and understood independently of words, writing, language and culture; the toilet signs in the UK are almost exactly the same as toilet signs in China, or anywhere else in the world for that matter.

Aside from wayfaring signs, our roads are littered with examples of pictographic signs that give us information, or instruct us on dangers or regulations that may exist. They tell us what speed we should not go beyond, warn us of slippery areas and potential rockfalls, and they inform us when we are approaching junctions and roundabouts. They give us information that we should adhere to rather than desire to know.

Using pictograms in signage and wayfinding is expected and using well-known symbols in built environments creates a challenge for design teams as they seek new and engaging ways of making their signs stand out from the crowd.