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Pictograms, Icons and Signs

As the title says, the book covers much more than just icons. The top level term being pictorial signs, which is to encompass both icons and pictograms.

Pictograms and icons have one thing in common: they both are pictorial signs, but they have different functions. Pictograms warn, guide or protect, so they need to be immediately decipherable, and there should be no chance of misunderstanding them. There’s no room for learning through trial and error. Icons on the other hand, enjoy a greater freedom in design. Many of the theories that are applied to pictograms in the book, are equally applicable to interface icons.

The writers mention pictorial dyslexia, to point out that the comprehension of pictures is often taken for granted, although even many designers lack a thorough understanding of how “pictorial language” is constructed.

Semiotics and Semantics

According to Umberto Eco, a sign is: “Everything that, on the grounds of a previously established social convention, can be taken as standing for something else”. The authors refer to Peirce and Morris to give an overview to semiotics, according to whom the study of signs and symbols consists of four categories: Semantics, Sigmatics, Syntactics and Pragmatics.

A signs relation to its meaning is influenced by the following conditions: 

  • Surroundings
  • Knowledge
  • Culture
  • Social circumstances
  • Combination of signs

Studying the relation of the signifier and the signified (Sigmatics), a signs motif doesn’t have to have any formal connection with the desired meaning, because the meaning is agreed upon between the sender and the receiver. However, the understanding of a sign increases, when there is a visual correspondence between the sign and the signified. This correspondence is called the degree of iconicity, where as the degree of abstraction describes the signifiers divergence with the signified.

The origins of the semiotic terms icon, symbol, and index derive from the following Latin and Greek words: 

  • Eikon = "image" (Greek)
  • Sumbolon = "mark" or "token" (Greek)
  • Index = "pointer" (Latin)

On syntactic terms (the signs relation to its form), it is important to keep things simple. A pictogram that is too complex loses its representative value. It starts to stand for itself instead of its signified. The visual style of representation is also connected to the context. When pictograms have a similar visual form, they can be recognized as parts of a system. When an individual pictogram is put into the context of a system, it is faster and easier to understand.

The signs relation to its receiver is covered by pragmatics. Here, two main factors need to be studied, the intention of the sender and the interpretive faculties of the receiver. 

Interpretation can occur in three different degrees:

  1. Open interpretation occurs, when there is no prior agreement for the use of pictogram. The user must discover the meaning on her own. This can also be the case, when a user is introduced to a completely new interface or a novel icon.
  2. Clear interpretation is a prerequisite for a pictogram. Clear context contributes to this interpretation, right place, moment, form and conditions ensure a clear understanding.
  3. Complete interpretation within a system occurs, when a pictogram is seen as a part of a system, and the full context of a closed pictorial language becomes apparent to the user.

The intention or purpose of a pictogram can be one of the following:

  1. Indicative: informing the receiver.
  2. Imperative: influencing the will or behavior.
  3. Suggestive: influencing feelings.

A Brief History of Pictorial Signs

The history of pictorial signs can be traced to primeval times. The first pictorial signs, the cave paintings of Chauvet Cave in France, date back to circa 30 000 BC. However, cave paintings are not considered to be pictograms, as they don’t seem to convey a particular message. The earliest known writing systems originated in Mesopotamia and Egypt more than five thousand years ago. Writing systems also emerged in China (1200 BC) and Central America (Mayan glyphs 300 BC).

Even hieroglyphs do not qualify as pictograms, since only a person with an understanding of the Egyptian culture could decipher their meaning. A pictograms needs to meet the criteria of cultural neutrality and international symbolism. 

The use of vignettes began with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Vignettes are small ornamental designs, that were repeatedly used as illustrations and as marks of identification. However, vignettes were not dependent of any system and they were more elaborate than pictograms in general.

The second industrial revolution made it necessary to develop rapid forms of communication that were not restricted by language or culture. The first pictorial symbols used as traffic signs, were agreed to in Paris in 1909. A number of European countries agreed to the use of four pictograms:  bump, curve, intersection, and railroad crossing. Later In 1936, Otto Neurath and Charles W. Morris developed the ISOTYPE system. Short for International System of Typographic Picture Education, ISOTYPE aimed for a standardized use of diagrams, charts, text illustrations and public information. Neurath also worked on the establishment of an international pictographic system. Also in 1936, the Berlin Olympics featured the first Olympic pictograms. In 1972, Otl Aicher perfected the use of pictograms in the Munich Olympics. His simplified and stylized formal language is regarded as the model that gave rise to the modern pictogram.

Another forerunner in the standardized use of pictorial signs have historically been airports. In 1968, a pictogram study group that was put together in the Association of German Airports, recommended the use of pictograms in airports. Gradually over a few decades the practice became a standard for bus and train transport as well.

Interface Icons

According to the authors: “icons are the free spirits of the sign world”. They supposedly are more entertaining than regular pictograms. Another distinguishing factor is that they can also be animated and have different visual states that change according to the user’s interaction.

In the book, the term “interface icon” is limited to digital interfaces. Supposedly the term icon was first used in the context of interfaces, when digital devices started to replace analogue ones. As the digital revolution, that started largely in the English speaking world, spread to other countries, a new demand for visual means for communication came up.

The best known icons of this time were the ones designed by Susan Kare. Probably her most recognized icons are the ones she designed for Apple Macintosh. Susan Kare  began her work in the field between 1983 to 1986, when she was working for Apple Computers. She thrived to design icons that would convey an idea in a clear, direct, and relevant way. Her approach to icon design was more similar to traffic signs than illustrations. Her designs included some of the classic Apple icons, such as the cursor hand, clock, smiling Mac, paint bucket and lasso tool. The authors also incorrectly attribute the waste bin icon as Susan Kare’s original design. In fact the waste bin was already part of the icon set of the xerox alto in 1973.


Rayan, A., Hubner, R. (2006). Pictograms, Icons and Signs. London. Thames & Hudson Ltd.

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