Pictograms Are My Friends

A big question for the future of pictograms is if their opportunity for self-expressiveness is their future strength or, are pictograms forgetting their roots and global responsibilities as in Neurath’s Isotype project, Isotype the International System of Typographic Picture Education, to develop an international picture language? I love pictograms they are my ubiquitous friends. I greet thousands of them every day—on my mobile phone, my MacBook, weather maps, web pages and street signs. They are our helpers and supervisors presenting information, directing, or warning.

I drew my first pictogram at a very early age, as a stick figure with lines for a torso, legs and arms and with a head as a circle, sometimes embellished with details such as hair, eyes and smiles. To express emotion, simple and exciting additions could be applied, such as facial expressions and activity hints like angry eyebrows and farting clouds. As I grew up 'No entry' signs decorated my bedroom door and a pictographic cookbook taught me how to make very tasty scrambled eggs. At art college my projects often had 'simple' graphic forms and were built from interesting geometric structures—here I was introduced to 'pictograms'. I realized that I already knew them well. Neurath’s visual and textless Isotype pictograms were designed to democratize communication. Words divide, pictures unite. This was also the ideology of amongst others Charles K. Bliss’s International symbol language (Blissymbolics). Many pictogram programs, and others inspired by them, still surround us; DOT (U.S. Department of Transport),

ERCO (Otl Aicher’s pictogram system), and ISO (International Organisation for Standardization) guide us daily in an international communication language—by informatively responsible icons and pictograms. Pictograms are omnipresent and belong to all designers, we see them, collect them, use them on our blogs, make them or use them from Modley’s clipart or Noun’s pictogram archives, print them on our T-shirts, or send them as emojis (from the Japanese for picture (e) and character (moji) or better known as smileys). And some of our friendly pictograms have become so iconic that they have become immortal, surviving generations of design directors identity redesigns. Among them are Microsoft’s floppy disc’s symbol for save, telephone icons and traffic signs. Some pictograms even survive the scrutiny of the credibility juries—I have approved an Olympic paradox (as Department Leader for Graphic Design at Lillehammer ’94) that pictograms can be inspired by two thousand year old rock carvings and yet can carry 20th century rifles! The pictograms days of anonymity and slavery as pure bearers of information are over. Where as Neurath tried to remove individual style from his pictograms it now appears that one of the pictogram’s aims in life is not only to give directions, orders, warnings, prohibitions or instructions but also to express themselves with personal style and emotion.

The modern Olympic games has some wonderful examples of pictograms searching to say more about themselves; from the psychedelic pictograms of the Mexico games in 1968, Spanish expressiveness in the ’90s and to the kindred excellence of the sports pictograms of Athens and Beijing in 2004 and 2008, where they express their cultural heritage. Do their new personal identities outshine their informing, warning and directional identities? I do not believe that the pictogram’s responsible roots have been weakened in their search for expressiveness. They are still active and responsible to the ideology of international language (beware slippery floors and Tidyman). They have just expanded their obligations into newer fields of cultural identity and local expressiveness. In my project Rubbish Reflections Tidyman became an opinionated figure encouraging us to challenge human values.

Pictograms have also adjusted themselves to the technical world of screen-based communication, with pixel icons and stylish user interface graphics. And proving their engagement for our needs, emojis have been developed not only enabling them to express themselves but also helping us to express ourselves more emotionally. Emojis are similar to, but more comprehensive than the more primitive emoticons (combining punctuation marks to create faces) and dingbat fonts. Emojis are being further and further developed from their Manga roots to fill our human need to convey emotion and personality, in an otherwise cold and technical screen-based interaction in our messaging and storytelling. I believe that pictograms are showing even more responsibility by letting us use them to express ourselves, and by so doing they not only continue to inform, warn and adorn for us, they also accommodate our expressive and emotional needs, they are really good friends.