Pictographs are icons that are used to be universally understandable, such as traffic signs. These images represent ideas visually so their meaning can be recognized at a glance and do not rely on words written in a language the viewer might not understand. Such symbols can be powerful in their shorthand design, but pictographs can also be misunderstood, misused or poorly designed. Designers of pictographs are challenged with delivering clear messages in simple designs.
Weaknesses in Pictograph Design
Pictographs are an efficient way to communicate without using words -- like the "No smoking" sign that shows a cigarette inside a circle with a slash across the diameter. However, picture icons for complex ideas can be misunderstood just as easily if they are too small or buried among other visual clutter on a wall or printed on a label. Because of the increased use of visual information in a digital world, pictographs are used more often -- sometimes to convey complex ideas in contexts that can confuse the intended audience. A square outline with an "x" across it on a clothing label means nothing to someone who doesn't know it means "do not put in a washing machine," for example.
Limitations of Pictographs in Graphs
Pictographs used to depicts various amounts are commonly used in schools and news publications. Different sizes and colors of the unit items can further confuse the reader, and pictograph charts with more than one type of information displayed can be puzzling. For instance, a chart showing types of pets owned by American families could be hard to read if the pictographs include lots of different types of animal images. Pictographs also have limited ability to indicate small numbers. For example, an outline of a person in a chart reporting recent car purchases might stand for 1 million people. Fifteen of these figures would show the number of people, 15 million, who preferred one car manufacturer over another. However, Indicating amounts that are less than 1 million are difficult to indicate by simply removing fractional parts of the body. This would make it hard to compare varying amounts by simply glancing at the information, especially when the difference between two amounts is very slight.
Very few pictograms are universally understood, according to research conducted in 1997 by the Department of Trade and Industry in the U.K. The organization found that even well-understood pictograms will not be interpreted correctly by all groups of consumers or across all cultures. It can take many years for a new pictograph to reach maximum effectiveness, as people must be taught the message of the simplified design. Some pictorial images can be interpreted differently by different cultures. For example, in Japan, a human form outlined in red is thought of as female, while the same image outlined in blue is considered male. This specific assignment of color is not as prevalent in the U.S.; rather the presence of a short, triangular skirt depicts a female. Travelers who don't recognize the distinction could end up in the wrong restroom.
Potential for Confusion
Pictographs are often used to direct people away from potentially dangerous situations. However, the complex nature of many hazards makes it difficult to communicate the entire necessary warning information. In some cases, pictographs need to be combined with text to more fully convey danger, whether it's a road sign warning of curves ahead or a pictograph warning of suffocation risks. But too much visual clutter on labels and packaging, such as large blocks of text, can make it easy to miss warnings about the risks of combustion, drowning, choking or poisoning.
- Department of Trade and Industry: The Role of Pictograms in the Conveying of Consumer Safety Information
- Perceptual Edge: Unit Charts Are for Kids
- Laboratory for Global Informational Network, Kyoto University; Analysis of Cultural Differences in Pictogram Interpretations; Heeryon Cho
- Pixel Resort: How and When to Use Pictograms
- Photo Credit arcady_31/iStock/Getty Images