Pictograms, International Communication and Cultural Diversity (Part 4)

Pictogram Examples Continued
Thankfully, very little is uniform from country to country. In his book World Without Words, Michael Evamy states that it is a great misconception to assume that graphic information becomes magically accessible to everyone, everywhere when you remove words. Our
interpretation of symbols depends greatly on what cultural baggage we unpack in the process. Sign systems that Western nations take for granted in public spaces are being modified in non-Western countries to make more sense to local inhabitants. Indian hospitals have adopted symbol-based signs, a welcomed system in a country where literacy is low. According to Evamy India is home to 14 different languages and 1600 individual dialects. Indian signs are also unique in the fact that they reflect their cultural context extremely accurately. Divisions of wealth, class and gender demand additional signs to those of just man and woman. A symbol for “rural man” is also used and there are separate signs for ‘male queue’ and ‘female queue’. These signs are obviously discriminatory, but are typical of attitudes prevalent in Indian society. These pictograms are successful because they passively reflect existing cultural customs.

Male Queue Female Queue
Male and Female Queue Pictograms

Rural Man Man
Rural Man and Man Pictograms

The Indian signs clearly cross language barriers very successfully, but do not necessarily target an ‘international’ audience. The best examples of this are present in pictograms for airports and stations. According to Iconographic (1978, p.18) many people have complained about the haphazard way in which international signing has been allowed to develop. International signing has in increased greatly in number, but what is particularly of interest is the way in which designers from all parts of the world have created very similar results. Airport signing, in particular uses similar working methods, graphic ingredients and appearance, but there are striking stylistic differences in many examples.

Arrivals Pictogram Variations

Olympic Pictograms
The Olympic games are one of the greatest sources to look at in terms of international communication using pictograms. There are not only thousands of existing pictograms, but with each games being held in a different country, it is easy to compare how different cultures approach the design of the symbols. Each set of pictograms is representing the same Olympic events yet they look so very different. The reasons behind the diversity of the pictograms is not only based on culture, but also changes in attitude and design throughout time. By taking just five different Olympic games and looking at how they represent some of the sports, specific influences become clear. By looking at the pictograms chronologically, it becomes obvious how the designs are affected as attitudes and style changes. Very loosely speaking, the pictograms of the Olympics have become more abstract and ‘contemporary’
over the last few decades. This could be down to popular design culture and the emergence of more abstract art forms. It could just as easily be that as pictograms have become more popular in society, their design has been able to break from traditional standards.

From top to bottom: Munich 1972, Seoul 1988, Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008

The whole idea of the Olympics is not just bringing nations together and celebrating sporting events. There is also the side of the Olympics that embraces the host nation. These countries have a great opportunity to say something about themselves. They can do this in many ways, one of which is through visual identity and design. Along with the emblem or logo, pictograms can say a lot about the culture and history of the host nation. Otl Aicher’s designs for Munich 72 are seen by many, as the most influential. They set a future standard for the design of pictograms. The forms were basic, minimised and extremely geometric. They were almost as consistent as an alphabet. Otl Aicher’s criteria for a good pictogram included: culturally neutrality, legibility and awareness of cultural taboos. It is clear that his views were a strong influence in the design of the Olympic pictograms, but where did these opinions come from? Typical Germanic style was very rigid and German culture was full of rules and standards. His style and the Ulm College of design, which he founded, were a response to post-war needs in Germany. Indirectly culture and historical events are visible in the design of pictograms through the society and era the designer grew up in. Influences on the designer become part of their designs.

In the Olympics since the new millennium, cultural influences have become stronger than ever. Sydney depicted the modern pentathlon using the stars of the Australian flag, instead of dots. It also took strong influence form Aboriginal Australians. Arms and legs were represented in the shape of the boomerang, an article specifically recognised as being Australian. The Athens Olympics in 2004 were clearly inspired by elements of Ancient Greece. According to Rayan Abdullah in his book Pictograms, Icons and Signs, the depiction of the athletes drew inspiration from the black-figure vases typical of ancient Greece and Cycladic marble statues were also a clear influence with their elegant and dynamic forms.

Greek Black Figure Vase and Cycladic Marble Statue

Released on 7th August 2006, the Beijing pictograms have a clear influence.

“… with strokes of seal characters as their basic form, the Pictograms of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games integrate pictographic charm of inscriptions on bones and bronze objects in ancient China with simplified embodiment of modern graphics, making them recognizable, rememberable and easy to use.”

The pictograms have cleverly used the effect of sharp contrast, typical of Chinese
traditional artistic form of rubbings. They display distinct motion character, elegant visual perception of movement and cultural connotations. It is clear that in the 21st century host nations are really taking pride in their heritage. The pictograms are not just providing information about events, but about the area they are being placed.

Ancient Chinese Writing Styles

More recently the release of the London 2012 pictograms have sparked much discussion, a topic that could have it’s own blog entry…

Coming soon Part 5: Case Study – The Work of Lance Wyman

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1 Response to Pictograms, International Communication and Cultural Diversity (Part 4)

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

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