Pictograms, International Communication and Cultural Diversity (Part 1)


The world increasingly seems a smaller place, now more than ever there is a need for forms of communication that will cross all language and cultural barriers, but does this mean that signs that cater for international users cannot have any individual personality or style? If languages can have accents and dialects, why can’t pictograms? Is it possible for pictograms to retain national characteristic, but still communication to international audiences effectively?

In the 1970’s Otl Aicher stated that pictograms should be culturally neutral and not offend cultural taboos, however he also suggested that as pictograms become more familiar then abstraction could take place.

What are Pictograms?
There are many ways in which pictograms have been described:

  • “An element of a system of absolute validity.” – Otto Neurath
  • “It must have the character of a sign and should not be an illustration.” – Otl Aicher
  • “It is an iconic sign that depicts the character of what is being represented.”– H.W. Kapitzki
  • ” The purpose of a pictogram is to make our lives easier and safer. For a pictogram to work it must be instantly recognisable and understood by all. Therefore the image must be kept simple and consistent.” – Transport for London

Background History
The idea of an international picture language is not something that is new, neither is the use of pictures to communicate. Pictures predate typographic interpretation of spoken language as a means of communicating information. The first evidence of recorded pictures were cave paintings dating as far back as 20,000 BC, but these were considered purely decorative with no complex meaning.

Cave Painting Lascaux

True written communication is thought to have been developed much later by the Sumerians, around 3500 B.C. They recorded stories and preserved records using simple drawings of everyday objects, these were the first real pictograms. Many ancient civilizations used pictures of some description to communicate to one another, tell stories or create identity. Hieroglyphics, coats of arms, and vignettes are a few examples, but these forms of pictorial communication had very little to do with the development of international communication or reaching a wider readership. Their purpose was simply to communicate to one another and make records.

 Sumerian Pictorial Symbols

Transport systems have played a huge part in the development of pictograms. In 1909, the first international convention on road signs was organised in Paris. The first four common road signs were standardised. It was the germ of a series of conventions, protocols, and projects. These symbols were internationally agreed by European countries and are virtually unchanged today. In 1968, an international treaty was designed to increase road safety and aid international road traffic. It did this by standardizing the signs, lights and markings.

Air and rail travel have also played an important role. Airports and train stations are now places of international exchange and pictograms have become the perfect solution to possible communication barriers. According to Paul Mijksenaar a dogma was created that suggested pictograms served only to produce commutative noise and were inferior to what was seen as unambiguous text. In 1967, a new sign system for Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport did not include pictograms and was unchanged until the early 90’s.

 Amsterdam Schiphol Now
Image credit: Trevor May

Transport has had a clear effect on the development and use of pictograms, but this was not instant. It has not been until more recently, that some systems have begun to break away from standard forms and realised the potential of pictures. The designs of Toan Vu-Huu for the Cologne Bonn Airport shows a vast change from previous efforts. What makes the Cologne Bonn Airport unique is that it lies midway between two large and established airports. Rather than competing with these airports, Cologne Bonn carved out its own unique space.

Cologne Bonn Airport
Image credit: Toan Vu Huu

PART 2 – Background History Continued…Isotype, Ikea and Olympic Pictograms.

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2 Responses to Pictograms, International Communication and Cultural Diversity (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review | Wayfinding_UK's Blog

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