Modern hieroglyphics

The pictogram universe is far from fixed, with modernising influences and different cultural requirements provoking constant evolution. Anna Richardson looks at the ideas behind some recent schemes

Everyone knows stick man means men’s and a stick woman means ladies’ toilets, but what about a knife and fork, a box with arrows pointing up and down, or an airplane silhouette? An integral part of wayfinding, a pictogram’s main aim is to promote clear and unambiguous understanding. Even though their raison d’etre is purely functional, their aesthetic value has been much noted. Different graphic approaches to Olympic sports pictograms, for example, have sparked appreciative swooning, with Otl Aicher’s designs for the 1972 Munich games often cited as the ultimate in pictogram standards.

The motifs for the 1968 games in Mexico City are also much lauded. Their creator, Lance Wyman, has no doubt about pictograms’ aesthetic possibilities. ‘I’m inspired when I think that well-designed pictograms and symbols can be visual poetry,’ he says. ‘I enjoy creating visual form that successfully communicates specific content. Content enables communication, but it’s the form that determines its degree of success.’

Creating a universally understood, yet creatively satisfying, set is challenging however, as international standards have asserted themselves. ‘Pictograms tend to be fairly similar, because we have to follow certain standards,’ says Tony Howard, founder of Transport Design Consultancy, which is currently rolling out a new family of pictograms for the Dubai Metro. ‘But we try to create pictograms which are suitable and appropriate, as well as slightly unique.’

It is important not to destroy recognition, agrees Ian Wright, design director at Air Design. ‘You’ve got to bear in mind the familiarity that people have with some of these symbols.’ On the signage for Cardiff’s new St David’s shopping centre, for example, Air Design wanted the pictograms to be more humanistic. ‘In the case of the disabled pictogram, we wanted to make the symbol more compatible with the man and the woman and less institutional, without losing the recognition inherent in the original,’ says Wright.

There certainly is room for creativity. ‘As long as they’re structurally recognisable and close to the established standard, there’s still a lot of room for graphic interpretation in pictograms,’ says Bruno Maag of typographic design consultancy Dalton Maag. ‘Designing them to be sympathetic to the general graphic language and particularly the typographic language is key.’

Wyman, who has recently designed ‘back-of-house’ pictograms for Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel, also believes that despite the rather ‘boring and safe’ standards, change and variation will prevail. ‘When I think of the expressiveness that has been designed into type fonts over the decades, and how the evolving technology keeps making it easier, I think the same tendency will apply to pictograms,’ he says.

In fact, Dalton Maag is about to embark on an ambitious project to design a new family of standard pictograms – about 500 are probably required, estimates Maag. ‘There is definitely a market for it,’ he says. ‘I’m not saying people are fed up with what’s available, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a bit more variety, and maybe we are going to be able to change the visual language a little bit.’

On an individual pictogram level, cultural differences and technology can provide a different challenge. For the Dubai pictograms, Howard found that the well-known lost property symbol of umbrella-plus-question-mark was inadequate in the sunny Middle Eastern emirate. It was replaced with a ‘missing’ mobile phone and keys. Air Design’s Wright, meanwhile, is contemplating whether the symbol of an old-fashioned film camera is still relevant for a new cinema project.

The design team for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games also took a novel approach to its sports pictogram design, basing their style on the illustration, design and photography of popular culture, board sport culture, manga, fashion and music. Detailed illustrations, which allowed for a lot of realism and dynamism, were commissioned from Dutch illustrator and designer Irene Jacobs, who then further distilled those into pictograms. Part of the original brief referenced photograms, says Jacobs. ‘They wanted a realistic shape, and it needed to have perspective.’

With the London 2012 Olympic pictograms due to be unveiled before the year is out, the creative possibilities of pictograms are sure to be debated at length once more.

Latest articles

Remembering Jon Daniel: 1966-2017

We look back on the life and work of the Design Week columnist, independent creative director and social activist “who helped put black participation on the political map”.