The Incredible World of Pictograms

The Incredible World of Pictograms

Pictograms are a trendy and quirky area of graphic design that have grown in popularity over the last couple of years, but not all graphic designers are aware of their potential.

You certainly don’t want to miss out on them, so I’m going to give you a quick introduction to pictograms and, more importantly, how to put them together.

But what exactly are they?

Pictograms Laid Bare

You’ve seen pictograms everywhere, believe me! You see that road sign at the end of your road next to the pedestrian crossing? That image of a person strolling across it is a pictogram.

That pedestrian crossing image is pretty simple, isn’t it? You can readily recognise that there’s gonna be someone walking in this area, so watch out (the red trim of the sign indicates danger).

And that’s exactly what pictograms are all about – simplicity.

Why do Pictograms Work?

Pictograms are a concerted effort by graphic designers to take everyday objects and strip them of non-essential details, but still leave an outline which can be instantly defined.

If we go back to our pedestrian crossing example, then you can clearly see that it’s a human. There’s no need for cheekbones or even knobbly knees to mark that central image out as a human. The emphasis is on the main recognisable elements e.g. head, arms, torso and legs.

It’s this emphasis on basic structural elements which gives pictograms the power to communicate strong messages with the minimum amount of fuss. And it’s this aspect which is particularly intriguing about pictograms as it allows them to be universal. In fact, the pedestrian crossing image barely deviates from the UK version whether you’re in Japan, Israel or Qatar.

Current Craze for Pictograms

Pictograms are a very popular design element at present and it’s not hard to understand why when you take a look at the rise of flat design.

Flat design, of course, is best known for being the aesthetic behind smart phone operating systems and the current stylistic choice for web design. Gone are the highly detailed user interfaces of yesteryear and, in their place, are sleeker, more minimalist designs which have an emphasis on providing quick access to what the user needs.

Pictograms, with their desire to reduce images to their basics, are the perfect choice to help boost the usability of interfaces. By defining the context of an image so quickly – e.g. a basic clock face for a clock app – users intuitively know where to click.

And us humans just love being told what to do!

How to Design Pictograms

Designing a pictogram is fairly straightforward if you stick to the right formula, so I’m going to help you out with a brief guide on how to get started.

First off, you need to identify what it is you’re trying to convey e.g. alerting people to the fact that pedestrians will be crossing the road. However, always remember that your pictogram needs to have context or it’s going to look disconcertingly vague and just confuse people.

Next you need to try and figure out which object/s you’re going to feature in your pictogram. There are probably a million ways to represent a pedestrian crossing, but you need to aim for the simplest and most recognisable depiction of this. At this point you’re going to want to spend a lot of time drafting what can achieve this.

Once you’ve decided on the visual objects you can start to break them down into their simplest forms as, remember, that’s the key to a good pictogram; you don’t need to feature cars or roads, just a pedestrian. So, strip out any unnecessary visual cues to maximise the impact of your pictogram.

And, finally, get a group of friends – they don’t need to be graphic designers – and test your pictogram on them. You’ll want to see how easily they recognise its meaning and how much context is required to fill in the blanks.



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