I have a bit of a love affair with pictograms – the small black and white symbols that represent commonly understood concepts.

Once you start to look out for them you see them everywhere, from train stations to campsites, on products, computers and even in fashion.

Recently, Emoji have become popular (partly through being better-supported on iPhones). They’re a sort-of pictogram, but in colour, cutesy, and generally appallingly designed.

The beauty of a true pictogram is its ability to convey a message using the simplest of forms, with enough detail to be recognisable, but no more.

In some ways they behave like nouns in language, which point at conceptual meanings within our minds. But whereas words are essentially arbitrary sounds, pictograms actually look like the thing they depict, so they’re perhaps more like onomatopoeias, requiring less mental decoding and thus communicating at a deeper, more instinctive level.

One of my favourite places to spot pictograms in in zoos. The classic animals that everyone knows and loves are easy – things like penguins, bears and elephants, the bat cave and the reptile house. I’ve not yet seen a pictogram for a Komodo dragon or a red panda, but it can surely only be a matter of time…

Maps are another great place to discover pictograms. I love studying the key on OS maps, and then trying to spot some of the obscure symbols - things like windmills and lighthouses, preserved railways and slipway.

The BBC weather forecasts have reduced their use of pictograms, in favour of more accurate and detailed 3D satellite renderings, but you do still see the occasional thunderstorm and snow cloud symbols – shapes which have been etched in our minds since childhood as the signifier of excitement.

I have, on occasion, tried to draw a few pictograms of my own. It’s tougher than it looks, and I’m no artist. Obeying a few ‘rules’, such as minimum stroke widths and standard radiuses and angles, does help, but the hardest thing is getting it to look just exactly right, which can only be done by eye and by experimentation.

If I finish any that I'm really proud of I’ll share them.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy the experience of discovering them.

Pictogram Credits

Train by Roger Cook & Don Shanosky, 1974.
Campsite by Christopher T. Howlett, 2012. CC BY
iPhone by The Noun Project, 2010. CC BY
Computer by The Noun Project, 2010. CC BY
Brain by Arjun Adamson, 2011. CC BY.
Speaker by The Noun Project, 2010. CC BY
Penguin by Luis Martins, 2012. CC 0
Elephant by Adrijan Karavdic, 2011. CC BY
Bat by Christopher T. Howlett, 2012. CC BY
Snake by US National Park Service, 1982.
Bear by unknown designer, Finland.
Windmill by The Noun Project, 2011. CC BY
Lighthouse by US National Park Service, 1982.
Train by unknown designer, Finland.
Boat Launch by US National Park Service, 1982.
Thunderstorm by The Noun Project, 2010. CC BY
Snow by The Noun Project, 2010. CC BY
Baby by Roger Cook & Don Shanosky, 1974.
Letter by John Caserta, 2011. CC BY

All pictograms from The Noun Project — a truly excellent project that’s collecting freely-available digital pictograms.