What this country needs is a good strong picture language

I’m trying to figure out if people speaking different languages is a good thing or a bad thing.

Here’s the inventor of Esperanto, L. L. Zamenhof (pictured above), on that question:

“The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Białystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. In such a town a sensitive nature feels more acutely than elsewhere the misery caused by language division and sees at every step that the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies. I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all people were brothers, while outside in the street at every step I felt that there were no people, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and so on. This was always a great torment to my infant mind, although many people may smile at such an ‘anguish for the world’ in a child. Since at that time I thought that ‘grown-ups’ were omnipotent, so I often said to myself that when I grew up I would certainly destroy this evil.”

—L. L. Zamenhof, in a letter to Nikolai Borovko, ca. 1895 (source)

Zamenhof sounds pretty convincing to me. But then another voice in my head is saying that linguistic diversity is a good thing.

image CC Daniel Hall 2012 https://flic.kr/p/8hDfXg
image CC Daniel Hall, 2012. Source

Look at this glorious insect. Would the world really be a better place if it only had one name? Are we seriously going to look at the words butterfly, papillon, schmetterling, farfalla, and mariposa, and then choose one? It seems unnecessarily destructive to kill off all but one of those fantastic words just so that we can communicate more efficiently. Let diversity flourish, that’s what I say. Sorry Mr Zamenhof.

Anyway, let’s change tack a bit. See if you can read this:

Source: http://www.pd4pic.com/images/stop-buttons-audio-record-pause-play-tape-deck.png

When you think about it for a moment, it’s amazing how many people around the world must know the meaning of these symbols. Of course, our being able to read this was no accident. Hi-fi manufacturers used these symbols because they didn’t want to waste money making different machines for different countries, and over time, the icons for record, play, pause, and stop became standard. The design community call this an example of “dominant design”, where one system becomes more popular than all others. Sometimes the dominant design is good (e.g. three-colour traffic lights are a universally used system that work pretty well), and sometimes the dominant design is bad (e.g. the qwerty keyboard). Unfortunately, by the time a bad design has become dominant, there’s not much anyone can do about it (except complain, or make Dvorak keyboards that no-one uses).

Otto Neurath. Source

There’s a long history of people searching for a dominant design in the field of written and visual communication. Esperanto can fairly be judged as an honourable failure, but one success story was Otto Neurath,  a social scientist and philosopher known for the slogan “Words divide, pictures unite”. Working with the graphic designer Gerd Arntz in the 1920s and 30s, Neurath helped create Isotype – the International System of Typographic Picture Education. His ambition was to create not a language, but a linguistic helper; a set of pictograms which could represent what a word stood for, even if it wasn’t able to completely replace the word itself.

Pictograms are generally functional but lifeless. Gerd Arntz was a rare kind of artistic genius because he managed to infuse his woodcut pictograms with charm and humanity, despite their simplicity. A prime example of this is his pictogram of unemployment, shown below. If you like the sound of Gerd Arntz, you can see more of his work on his official website, and there’s also a great book available called Gerd Arntz: Graphic Designer.

Source: http://www.gerdarntz.org/content/gmdh0200118
“Unemployed” by Gerd Arntz. Source

Designers following the work of Neurath and Arntz have created millions of pictograms. The most successful have probably been the stick man and woman representing “toilets”, though there are plenty of others which are equally well-known.

toilet pictogram

fire_exit_running_man_right_pictogramno smoking

Our interaction with computers, tablets and phones now depends on us understanding an ever-increasing array of icons. Unfortunately, there’s also an increasing lack of standardisation. Take a look at this blog post: Apple, Google and Microsoft can’t agree on an icon to represent “share”, so now we’ve got three radically different symbols meaning the same thing. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. It’s like the Tower of Babel all over again.

share icons

Pictograms are great, but they have a limit. They do well when representing physical items, but representing more abstract ideas can be difficult. “Share” is one example, but my own personal realisation of this came last week when I was trying to design a pictogram for “Philosophy”. Philosophy is an abstract thing; it doesn’t really look like anything. Rodin’s the Thinker is probably the closest we come to an archetypal image of a philosopher.


Here are my other attempts (drawn by hand this time). The image of cogs whirring inside a head is pretty good, but it represents Psychology as much as Philosophy. I finished this mini-project fairly unsatisfied with the results.

phil icons

Pictograms have an increasingly important part to play in User Interaction design. They help us find our way around an app or a website in just the same way as they help us find our way around an airport, overcoming language barriers as they go. The difficulty comes when pictograms become non-standard or unreadable. Then they just become decorative, or worse, confusing. Still, I think the world could do with more of them.


Here are some examples of pictogram usage that I’ve noticed on the web:

Southern Water – Whole website is plastered with them, to varying effect.

Panopto – They’ve set themselves a real challenge with some of these icons (how on earth do you represent “video transcoding” in a small monochrome image?). But most of the icons work, and the overall look and feel of the site is nice.

The Noun Project – this is a great website where designers submit pictograms for a multitude of nouns.

Pictograms from the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games – Beautifully drawn and each sport is immediately identifiable. I also like the ones from Munich 1972. After that they got progressively worse every Olympiad.

Image credit

L. L. ZamenhofSport pictograms

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