When words are superfluous: the power of icons

Good communication clearly expresses ideas and transmits information. Sometimes, the most effective way to convey information quickly – especially to a multicultural, multilingual audience – isn’t with words but with images. The problem with images is that a picture may be worth a thousand words, but it won’t represent the same thousand words to everyone.

Enter the symbol.

Steven Heller’s short article in the New York Times ( The Design of Symbols) looks at the origins of modern pictorial symbols, beginning with the prototypes developed in the 1930s by Viennese social scientist Otto Neurath. Neurath is considered the father of the current trend in information graphics, seeking to “bridge the gap between reading and seeing in an effort to accelerate the transmission of information.”

This pictorial transmission of information has been done in many different ways over time. The History of Graphic Design has a handy little primer of terms categorizing symbols by use. The ones with which we’re most familiar are:

The pictogram: an image that represents an object. You see these in airports and other public places. Chinese is composed entirely of pictograms.

The rebus: a pictorial image that represents a spoken sound. This goes back as far as the phonetic alphabet of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Paul Rand’s “eye-bee-em” is an example.

The phonogram: A phonogram is a symbol or letter that represents a spoken sound. “I love New York”.
The ideogram: a character or symbol representing a complete idea or concept. The tipping vending machine is one of my favourites.
The logo or logotype: a symbol that represents a specific entity, often a commercial entity. A logotype is a symbol comprised entirely of typography, like the Coca-Cola logo.

You can read more about the history of symbols on the History of Graphic Design Web site.

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