Pictograms and Iconography

Today we had a day with Stephen McCarthy, who is a designer for the Government Digital Service, during which we did a workshop with him on pictograms.

What are pictograms?

Pictograms, also known as icons (iconography) are essentially images that are used to represent data. They are a simplified representation of a concept, with a flat design. Pictograms are used for all sorts of things: they are most commonly used as tools for signalling, direction and instruction – to get or help you to do something. They are also sometimes used as tools for education, storytelling and social critique or reporting. They are often found in an array of places, such as on toilet doors, airports and train stations, for just a few examples. Pictograms are the nearest thing that we have to a system of universal understanding.

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There are three main ways in which we read imagery, known as the semiotic levels:

  • Syntactic
  • Semantic – this is literal identification, so seeing exactly what is in front of you
  • Pragmatic – this implies interpretation, it is improvised information

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For example, the semantic of this pictogram above would be, a car dreaming of a key. However, the pragmatic version would be, car rental, which is of course what the pictogram actually is.

How to construct your own pictogram and what to consider when doing so:

  • The art and importance of implication – “What you leave out is just as important as what you put in. The viewer will fill in the gaps.” Nigel Holmes (Infographics designer)
  • Ask yourself what are the criterial aspects of the thing that you are representing
  • Develop consistent systems and patterns – re-use elements
  • There is a lot of power in subtleties
  • Stereotypes can be effective
  • Cultural context can have a big influence

The biggest problem with images is that, they are ambiguous; they can be interpreted in many different ways so may not have a single clear, obvious meaning. Due to this ambiguity, images often need text to clearly  define their intended meaning. There are two main ways off adding text to do this:

  • Relay – this is extension of meaning: the words work with the image in telling the story
  • Anchorage – this is when the meaning is defined: the words along with the image, tell you how to interpret it

Sometimes, instead of using textual elements, using a second image to aid and elaborate on understanding works just as well.


As well as working as part of the Government Digital Service design team, Stephen also works on his own projects under Loft 27 Design. His work here includes writing narratives, for example newspaper articles or stories, through the use of only pictograms. Some of the stories he has previously covered includes the London riots, prostitution, sex trafficking, child abuse and other important issues and news headings. His aim is to show what took place, visually, rather than textually.

Today, we were given the opportunity and task by Stephen to do this for ourselves. We were split into pairs and each given a recent news article to create a visual narrative from – the aim was that, by the end of the task, somebody else who hadn’t known previously what you’re article was about, would be able to understand from the visuals, the story and goings-on from just your pictograms.

The article that my partner, Emily, and I were given was headlined, “Tall car salesman banned after driving with head sticking out of roof.” We began by splitting up the article into approximately eight key sections and decided to make one pictogram for each section that we’d highlighted. Below is our process and then our final story, told through pictograms:

The story behind our pictograms, image by image:

  1. There was a really tall man who was almost 7 ft tall
  2. When sat in a convertible, his head was above the windshield
  3. Side-shot of him driving fast with hair flying in wind
  4. It was considered dangerous driving
  5. A police car with sirens
  6. The policeman stops him
  7. The policeman thought that he was standing up in the car while driving
  8. He was taken to court in front of a judge
  9. He was given a driving ban

The most difficult but interesting thing that we found ourselves having to do, was to portray what was a complicated and wordy description, in the simple and clear visual format of a single icon. It was the details which were the most tricky. For example, in the article, the character was a male car salesman. On wondering how we could attempt to represent this, we decided that a simple male icon would do the job well enough – we made him tall instead as this was the key detail, rather than his profession. We used a policeman and a judge in our pictogram story too – so we added details such as the hat and strap across chest for the policeman, and the curly wig and hammer for the judge. Another example is that, in the article, it made reference to the salesman’s “blonde locks drifting through the breeze” which we thought was quite an amusing detail to include, but we did not want the icon to look like a woman and we also didn’t want to add too much colour – in the end, although we decided against yellow, we added short-ish locks to the character’s head.

When looking at our spreads of pictograms, our peers were able to look at and understand exactly what our story was, through the use of our pictograms. Overall, I really enjoyed our workshop today with Stephen McCarthy – I have never really looked at in detail or used pictograms before, so it was great to learn and practice using something so simple like the icons we looked at and made today, to so clearly tell a complicated story. It was great being able to tell a story completely through visuals, with no added text whatsoever.

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Published by

Amber Lloyd

Graphic Communicator

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